However, beyond the world of research, doctors who treated people with MS in the 1950s continued to suspect the cause lay in impaired blood flow, so circulation stimulators still dominated treatment. Nevertheless, doctors had not yet thought to analyse these therapies with controlled studies to track the results, so no reproducible or valid information could emerge about their safety or effectiveness. Treatments were still based more on opinions than facts.
In 1953, one of the major medical breakthroughs of the century occurred with the Nobel Prize-winning description of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson. The way in which genes control biologic functions became clearer, including how the immune system is regulated by sequences of genes.
Additional studies on nerve conduction showed how chemicals generate electricity as they flow through channels in the nerve fiber membranes. And myelin was further broken down into its components, isolating the basic protein suspected to be the target of the MS attack.
Scientists studied B-cells, T-cells, genes, and myelin but without uncovering a clear unifying thread to direct MS treatment. The emerging scientific complexity of MS confused rather than clarified, and research gave doctors very little guidance on what was best for their patients.
With the ability now to make an accurate diagnosis and measure how therapies affected disability, it was possible to begin scientifically testing MS treatments. A group of patients who were having exacerbations— or acute attacks of their MS—were given adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is a hormone normally produced by the pituitary gland.
It stimulates production of steroids by the adrenal glands. Increased secretion of these natural steroids provides an anti-inflammatory and immune suppressing effect. The ACTH group was compared to a similar group that received a placebo (an inactive look-alike substance).
The ACTH proved superior in speeding recovery. In subsequent years, treatment with ACTH was replaced by the high-dose, intravenous steroid therapy that is in use today for acute exacerbations. This 1969 study was the first to prove that a therapy could be developed that would improve the symptoms of MS. For the first time, there was a scientific treatment for MS.
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