Associate Professor Yasmine Probst

Two UOW researchers awarded MS Australia Grants

Two UOW researchers awarded MS Australia Grants

Projects to investigate dietary approaches to managing multiple schlerosis

Two academics from the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, Associate Professor Yasmine Probst and PhD candidate Karen Zoszak, have secured more than $300,000 research funding from MS Australia.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most commonly acquired chronic neurological disease affecting young adults, who are often diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. In Australia, MS affects three times more women than men. Alarmingly, MS is on the rise in Australia and worldwide at an accelerating rate, with more than 33,000 Australians currently diagnosed.

There is no known single cause of MS, but many genetic, environmental and behavioural factors contribute to its development and progression. These can include genetics and ethnicity, gender, viral infection, climate and sun exposure, vitamin D, smoking, stress, diet and physical activity.

Associate Professor Yasmine Probst, who lives with MS, has been appointed an MS Australia Senior Research Fellow and will advance a clinical trial that will test lifestyle management to help people living with MS to make positive changes to their eating patterns, exercise routine and overall self-management of their disease.

Obesity is a known risk factor for MS onset and a known risk factor for increased disability in established MS. The evidence shows that if people lose weight, this will bring about changes beyond body size alone. However, losing weight and maintaining the loss is difficult and needs the support of a healthcare team to aid behaviour change.

Associate Professor Probst will bring together a multidisciplinary team of health professionals who are involved in the care of MS using telehealth, including experts in nutrition, exercise and psychology, and will compare the participant outcomes with those from usual care delivered by an MS nurse.

Changes to health measures, including disability, fatigue, and sleep, will be assessed, in addition to markers of inflammation. The cost effectiveness of this type of care will be evaluated to consider its suitability in practice and whether a tailored lifestyle approach will result in increased weight loss and greater improvements to MS symptoms.  

Associate Professor Probst said the team hope to take the learnings of MS health professionals who use telehealth and the preferences of those living with MS.

“We will target health behaviour change that considers the interaction of what we eat and how much we move aligned with best practice psychological approaches to create strategies with our participants so that they can maintain their weight in the long term ideally with maximal benefit to their MS symptoms.”

The project will bring together researchers from across Australia including Murdoch University in Western Australia, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, The University of Canberra and the Menzies Institute for Medical Research via the University of Tasmania.

PhD candidate in nutrition and dietetics Karen Zoszak will investigate whether online dietary advice for MS aligns with the Australian Dietary Guidelines and will explore associations with health outcomes in people living with the disease.

People diagnosed with MS often search online for dietary advice to manage their symptoms and control their disease, however, this advice may be unreliable and contradictory. MS diets promoted online may be restrictive and not aligned with dietary guidelines, which is of specific concern given people living with MS are at increased risk of malnutrition due to symptoms such as difficulty swallowing and fatigue. 

Currently, there are no known tools that compare MS diets promoted online with Australian Dietary Guidelines, and no studies that have explored associations between dietary guideline adherence and MS health outcomes.

Ms Zoszak said she hopes the research will help people living with MS and healthcare professionals navigate the dietary advice they encounter with confidence.

“I'm incredibly grateful to MS Australia for this opportunity to work towards establishing clarity and unity regarding dietary messages for people living with multiple sclerosis; to not only benefit their nutritional status but reduce confusion and unnecessary dietary restriction,” Ms Zoszak said.

MS Australia is Australia's national multiple sclerosis (MS) not-for-profit organisation that empowers researchers to identify ways to treat, prevent and cure MS, seeks sustained and systemic policy change via advocacy, and acts as the national champion for Australia's community of people affected by MS.

Associate Professor Probst and Ms Karen Zoszak’s work are two of 17 cutting-edge projects to receiving funding from MS Australia’s latest $4.5 million grant round, announced on Wednesday 28 February 2024.

UOW is committed to addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a shared blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for everyone. MS research addresses Sustainable Development Goal 3, working to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all.