National study seeks cause of baffling, fatal disorder called multiple system atrophy

A better understanding of a baffling, frequently misdiagnosed disease called Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA) will be sought by researchers at 12 sites in the U.S. as part of a five-year, $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A devastating disease with multiple symptoms, no cure and no effective treatment, MSA strikes people in middle age. Most patients die within seven to 10 years.

Coordinated by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, the national research project will enroll 175 individuals with MSA and 350 control subjects who don't have the fatal disorder, in an attempt to identify possible environmental and genetic causes.

"Although there are estimates that MSA affects approximately 50,000 Americans, the true number is unknown," said the study's principal investigator, Clifford Shults, M.D., UCSD professor of neurosciences. "With its variety of symptoms, this disease is often misdiagnosed."

He added that it's unrealistic to think that one drug can treat all the symptoms. "What we need is to find the cause or causes, and stop MSA before the degeneration progresses."

Researchers will look for environmental risk factors such as points in a person's work, medical history and dietary habits, which are common to MSA patients and less common in individuals without MSA. They will look for possible genetic causes of MSA, and use sophisticated molecular biology techniques, such as transgenic mice bred to mimic MSA, to investigate genetic factors and cell biology that contribute to the cellular malfunction.

A progressive, degenerative neurological disorder with an average onset of 54 years of age, MSA is characterized by a wide range of symptoms, including muscle stiffness or rigidity, frozen or slowed movements, balance and coordination problems, a significant drop in blood pressure upon standing, urinary difficulties, male impotence, constipa

Contact: Sue Pondrom
University of California - San Diego

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