Janice Dean: Is an MS vaccine next? Why it would be a game-changer for me and millions of others

As I reflect on the importance of MS Awareness Month, it has been 16 years now since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, though, looking back, I had symptoms of the disease for much longer.

Janice Dean getting an infusion as part of her treatment for MS

Janice Dean getting an infusion as part of her treatment for MS
(Courtesy of the author)

My journey living with an unpredictable, often frustrating and sometimes debilitating disease can be quite scary, but what started out as a very dark time has been filled with hope and optimism. Some of that is attitude, but lately I’ve been reading that there is even something tangible on the horizon:

A possible vaccine.

According to the MS Society, multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves). It is a disorder in which the body’s own immune system is thought to incorrectly attack healthy tissue in the central nervous system.

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I have what’s called relapsing-remitting MS, which means my attacks or exacerbations subside with full or partial recovery.

Others have a more aggressive type of the disease which causes a steady progression of disability from the onset of symptoms, with few or no relapses or remissions. And there are others who are somewhere in between.

News of a vaccine could be a game-changer.

I tried to find out more about this incredible breakthrough, so I called my neurologist Dr. Tracy DeAngelis who has been my doctor (and cheerleader) for over a decade.

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Dr. DeAngelis says the vaccine is very promising. it’s based on the same breakthrough mNRA technology that has brought us the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine to protect against infectious diseases. Here’s how they explain it:

“To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, they teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.”

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Dr. DeAngelis says one of the great advantages of a potential MS vaccine would be that patients would no longer need to take chronic medications that suppress their immune system, which run the risk of side effects, such as infections.

Janice Dean and her husband Sean in an undated photo at a National Multiple Sclerosis Society event.

Janice Dean and her husband Sean in an undated photo at a National Multiple Sclerosis Society event.

The vaccine could also potentially prevent the disease from progressing and even improve existing symptoms.

And then there’s this even better news: It could even stop the illness from even happening.

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It’s difficult to express how profound this development is. When I first read about this possible miracle in the not-so-distant future, I burst into tears. Because, although there are many more therapeutics for patients, and our quality of life has improved, there is still so much uncertainty about how it will impact us down the road. Like a storm brewing inside of our bodies, MS symptoms can strike when you least expect it, with crippling results.

Janice Dean getting an infusion as part of her treatment for MS.

Janice Dean getting an infusion as part of her treatment for MS.

The possibility of an MS vaccine is exciting on a number of fronts. And the fact that we’re now hearing about it during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is really remarkable.

Dr. DeAngelis says it quickly became clear that COVID was going to inform our understanding of autoimmune disease, and that the tools to fight the pandemic, in the form of mRNA technology, might potentially lead us to a breakthrough for MS.

The study is currently being tested in mice and will have to work its way through a number of phases before treating humans. Dr. DeAngelis says the mouse model used here is a well-known animal model for MS for preclinical therapeutic developments. It’s not perfect but has provided good insights. And that is encouraging.

The bottom line is, for MS patients like me and millions of others across the U.S. seeing new treatments and possible vaccines in our lifetimes is like seeing sunshine peeking through dark clouds.

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And since March is MS awareness month, for all those who live with this illness, I remain optimistic about the future ahead.

For this meteorologist, the forecast is looking brighter than ever before.

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