You’re 20 years old and seem fit as a fiddle. Then suddenly the muscles in your arm stop working. The diagnosis is grim: you have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a chronic and progressive inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Suddenly – together with some 20,000 other Dutch citizens – you are faced with a condition that is one of the leading causes of disability among young adults. Last Saturday, MS was the central focus of the Tour de Rotterdam, a cycling event with distances from 25 to 150 kilometres. The proceeds of the day will be donated to Erasmus MC’s MS Centre.

Over 2,000 entrants lined up near Topsport Centrum, where a ship’s horn signalled the peloton to get moving. The pack also included numerous members of the Erasmus MC workforce.

Erasmus MC Tour de Rotterdam, 24 juni 2017, Yu Yi Wong, Roos van der Vuurst de Vries

‘You never get used to making this diagnosis’

The Sicilian: Elena Tringali

Physician-researchers Yu Yi Wong and Roos van der Vuurst de Vries research MS among children and adults respectively, and are very aware of how serious this condition is. Van der Vuurst de Vries: “The moment patients suffer the very first attack, I have to tell them that they have been diagnosed with an illness that will affect them for the rest of their lives. I never get used to this.”

The ladies completed the 25-km circuit. Wong: “The event is held in Rotterdam, and was organised for our department. Surely you can’t let others cycle on your behalf without joining in?”

Erasmus MC Tour de Rotterdam, 24 juni 2017, Merel Visser

Their colleague Merel Visser (who is training at the Paediatrics ward) rode the 45-km circuit. Visser lives opposite the MS Centre. “Every day, I see people entering the centre in wheelchairs, and I can see their condition declining. That is why I am very happy with this opportunity to help.”

‘MS beter en veiliger afremmen’

The Tour de Rotterdam can help raise public awareness of this condition, according to Rogier Hintzen, Head of the MS Centre. “Cycling is an accessible sport that you can keep up far longer than walking. It is often used in rehabilitation programmes. As a centre, we are ‘threatened’ by other charity causes. Every year, we need some 400,000 to 500,000 euro to provide our scientific researchers with structural funding rather than ‘piecemeal contracts’.”

MS Centre Rotterdam is one of the three academic centres that specialise in the disease. “We connect our patient care with scientific research,” says Hintzen. “The patients’ medical data is used both to optimise treatments and as input in further research into MS itself.”

Erasmus MC Tour de Rotterdam, 24 juni 2017, Rogier Hintzen
Rogier Hintzen.

Indeed, the proceeds of the recent event will be used for research – mainly into blood cells. Hintzen: “We want to know which cells frequently cause MS. We can use this knowledge for targeted interventions. Our current medicines are not that precise yet, and as a result, patients are more susceptible to infections. We want to slow down MS more effectively and safer, so that people can lead a happier life. Because while MS patients often grow just as old as healthy individuals, they may become paralysed when electrical signals no longer reach their muscle cells. In addition, this research could allow us to make far more accurate predictions about the disease’s progression.”

Wind and rain

Every year, the entrants in the Tour de Rotterdam cycle for a different charity. The organisers’ decision to choose MS this year was inspired by its tendency to afflict people in their prime – between the ages of 20 and 45. “We want to show people that even at such a young age, good health is by no means a given,” explains organiser Wim Waninge. The supermarket Albert Heijn also participated in the event: customers could raise funds for MS research by buying bread buns.

And the entrants really gave it their all. Visser: “We had strong headwind on the Van Brienenoord Bridge, and on top of that a downpour. That was hard going. At which point you start thinking about people who have MS – they have to live with far less power and energy than we have.”