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Multiple sclerosis–an inflammatory disease that causes the body’s immune system to destroy healthy tissue in the central nervous system–may be caused by a common foodborne illness.

New research by Dr. Jennifer Linden, a microbiologist at Weill Cornell in New York and presented at the 2014 ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Washington, D.C., suggests that the cause of the debilitating illnesses may actually be food related.

According to Linden’s findings, MS might be triggered by the epsilon toxin produced by Clostridium perfringens, the spore-causing bacterium that is a common cause of foodborne illness in the United States. C. perfringens is found in soil and contaminated, undercooked meats.

The same research team identified the toxin-producing strain of C. perfringens in a young woman with MS in a scientific article published last October in the journal PLoS ONE.

Will Research Lead to Cure?

So what does this new possibility mean for MS sufferers? Some combinations of genetic and environmental factors are likely root causes of what is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, but the foodborne illness may trigger the onset of that disorder. Perhaps more importantly, Linden said if the toxin is the trigger for MS, it’s possible antibodies or vaccines might be developed to halt its progression or even prevent it entirely.

This possibility brings new hope to those suffering from the disorder. It is usually diagnosed between ages 20 and 50. The condition progressively worsens, eventually disrupting the blood brain barrier and myelin, the protein that insulates the nerves in the spinal cord, brain and optic nerve. This destruction stops the electrical signals the brain and nerves convey from leaking out, causing gross motor functions to be difficult or impossible.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS affects around 400,000 Americans, and it is thought to be the most frequent cause of neurological disability that starts before old age, with the exception of trauma. Among the more famous MS sufferers are Montel Williams, Ann Romney and race car driver Trevor Bayne.

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