Could Our Ancestors Be the Key to Treating Diseases Today?
By Georgie Burns
Neolithic Skull from Orkney by Mark Longair via Flickr
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong condition where the body’s immune cells attack the brain and spinal column, causing many debilitating symptoms like vision problems, walking difficulties and sometimes even death. However, although many lines of treatment have been developed to manage the condition, how MS functions is still unknown, preventing the development of a cure. One of these mysteries has always been why it is twice as common in North-Western Europe compared to Southern Europe. That is until a team of researchers from Cambridge, Copenhagen, and Oxford universities cracked the code after ten years of research. The key to their success? Archaeology.
The research project was highly ambitious, with the team not only extracting ancient DNA (aDNA) from thousands of ancient human remains discovered across Europe and Western Asia but also decoding the contained genetic information, which, subsequently, was compared to the genetic information of hundreds of thousands of people who live in the UK today. According to multiple Nature papers, researchers discovered that when large numbers of cattle herders called Yamnaya migrated to North-Western Europe, across the Pontic Steppe from western Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, five thousand years ago, genes which significantly increase a person’s risk of MS came with them. These genetic variants evolved to protect the Yamnaya against diseases which they could contract from the animals they herded. However, modern lifestyles (particularly our changed diets and higher standards of hygiene) have not only rendered this evolution unnecessary but also pushed the genes into a new role: elevating a person’s risk of developing many diseases, like MS, as our immune systems are much more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases in the present-day.
So why is knowing the origin of MS important in developing a treatment? Professor Fugger, who is a research team member and an MS expert from Oxford who works at John Radcliffe Hospital, explains:
MS is “driven by normal genes to protect us against pathogens”, which means the drugs currently used to manage the disease put patients at risk of contracting other diseases as they suppress their entire immune system. In treating MS, we are fighting against our own evolution, so "we need to find the sweet spot where there is a balance with the immune system, rather than wiping it out".
Many new trials are testing the latest treatments for MS, and the research team’s recent discovery about the disease’s genetic markers could be a crucial stepping stone on the path to finding a cure.
The team has no plan to end their research here, though. During their genetic research across ancient human remains, the scientists founded the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, where a bank of DNA from five thousand ancient humans across many countries is stored. The team plans to continue searching for diseases within aDNA, to develop similar insights, and to trace their origins. It has already been identified that Eastern Europeans have a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease, which has been linked to DNA from prehistoric hunter-gatherers. At the same time, Southern Europeans are more at risk of developing bipolar disorder, which has been connected to genes which evolved within ancient farmers. This new approach to genetic conditions could revolutionise our understanding and treatment of countless conditions and diseases, making it a massive step towards improving millions of lives.