Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects over 23,000 Australian adults. It is the commonest disabling neurological disease of young adults. Although the specific causes of MS are not known, it is clear that there are a range of environmental and genetic factors that increase risk, working through immunological pathways. It was first noted in the 1920s that MS became more common with increasing distance away from the Equator. In a survey in 1981 in Australia, MS was 7 times more common in Tasmania than in far north Queensland. And that gradient of increasing occurrence with increasing latitude has persisted into the most recent studies in the early 2000s. From 2003-2006, the Ausimmune Study was run through the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health to investigate the causes of this latitude gradient. This study collected data on people with the earliest symptoms of MS, and people from the general population, in Brisbane, Newcastle, Geelong and the Western Districts of Victoria, and Tasmania. Analysis of the data from the Ausimmune Study confirmed what other studies had showed, that people with early signs of MS had lower vitamin D status than those without signs of disease. But the Study also found that, even after taking account of vitamin D, people with early signs of MS had lower sun exposure over their lifetimes than people without signs of disease. Along with other evidence from experimental studies, these results have led to two clinical trials to prevent MS in people at high risk: the PrevANZ Study using different doses of vitamin D supplementation, and the PhoCIS Study using artificial UV radiation. If successful, these “therapies” have the potential to markedly reduce the risk of developing MS.
Professor Lucas has been awarded the 2016 John James Foundation Tony Ayers Prize. This prize has been established by the John James Foundation for Excellence in Research in Translational Medicine at the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment in honour of their long term Board member Mr Tony Ayers AC. The Chair of the John James Foundation will present the Prize to Professor Lucas prior to the Lecture.