This activity is about working together as a family, or on your own, to learn about how multiple sclerosis is affected by coronavirus (COVID-19).

Learning about science in a fun, practical, and hopefully, engaging way is the Digesting Science philosophy. The activity has been developed by Barts MS at Queen Mary, University of London.

Before you start the activity, collect this list of things:

  • Two types of pasta
  • Some A4 paper or card
  • Scissors
  • Drinking glasses
  • A bowl
  • Something to use as a blindfold
  • A pen /pencil/crayon
  • A little bit of tape

It will take 20-30 minutes and covers:

  1. The immune system and how white blood cells fight infections like coronavirus.
  2. How you get immunity to a virus.
  3. Whether treating MS makes you more vulnerable to coronavirus

Let's explore the immune system!

The immune system is the body’s defence system against infections. It is formed of different kinds of white blood cells working together.

Everything from now on is on a tiny scale and happens in the immune system in your body.

White blood cells are amazing. Millions of them patrol the body, fighting infections and stopping you from getting ill.

Let's make some white blood cells...You will need at least two!


Step 1/11

Practice using the white blood cells to eat things up.

A virus enters the body

Make a few piles of pasta on the table. Put drinking glasses over them.

The pasta represents special myelin cells that make your nerves work properly. The body keeps them safe behind the 'blood-brain barrier' (the glass).

Fill a bowl up with another kind of pasta.

Imagine that this bowl of pasta represents a tiny water droplet crammed full of coronavirus. It can enter your body through your nose or your mouth!

Defend an infection!

Scatter the coronavirus around the table.

Oh no! The virus entered the body. It attacks the tissues in your lungs so it is important you get rid of it.

Time for your immune system to fight the infection! The white blood cells cannot 'see' new viruses, so put on your blindfold!

Set a 30 second timer and kill as many viruses as you can! Use the white blood cell to pick up the pasta.

How many did you manage to kill?

It takes the body time to discover a new virus — It's like finding someone in a crowd without your eyes!

Thought that was too easy?

Coronavirus invades cells in your body and uses them to multiply (very quickly!).

Fill the table with coronavirus...use it all!

Set a 30 second timer - you need to kill it all to end the infection. Don't forget your blindfold.

Did you manage to kill all the virus? Are there still loads left on the table?

Oh no! The white blood cells can't keep up. More virus means more damage and this can make people very ill.

A secret weapon...

White blood cells are clever. They begin to 'see' the virus!

Time to clear the infection. White blood cells can 'see' coronavirus, so take off your blindfold!

Kill the rest as quick as you can!

Was that much easier?

Not only does it 'see' coronavirus, it remembers it and becomes a specialist!

Your white blood cell is now a coronavirus killer. Draw a coronavirus on the side!

This specialist white blood cell gives you immunity from coronavirus. It might protect you forever, but scientists aren't certain yet.

So what happens with MS?

Your nerves have a special wall around them called the blood-brain barrier, shown here with the glasses over the myelin.

When you have MS some white blood cells get confused and cross the blood-brain barrier, scientists don't really know why.

Take the glasses off the myelin

Use a new white blood cell to kill the myelin (it actually nibbles at it leaving lasting damage!)

Just like with coronavirus, the immune system remembers the myelin

Your white blood cell is now a specialist myelin nibbler. Draw a myelin cell on the side!

This specialist white blood cell is an expert at attacking myelin which causes all of the symptoms of MS.

The destructive power of the white blood cell is now being used against you. When the body does this it is called an auto-immune condition.

Treating MS

Disease modifying medicines are sometimes used by doctors to 'fix' the immune system.

Drugs like Natalizumab block white blood cells from crossing the blood-brain barrier, including those that cause MS.

Put the glasses over the myelin to protect it

Other treatments, such as Alemtuzumab (and Fingolimod) either damage or trap white blood cells and stop them from working.

Put all of the white blood cells you have made on the table and 'disable' the myelin killers with the tape!

Selectively targeting white blood cells is an example of immunosuppression.

Scatter the table with coronavirus and myelin and clear away with your specialist white blood cells.

You can't attack the myelin, but the coronavirus killer white blood cells work normally.

We don’t think that people with MS are more vulnerable to coronavirus, as most MS treatments target only some white blood cells. They leave other white blood cells unharmed, so that the body still has some defence against viruses.

What an adventure! What have we learnt?

1. The body uses white blood cells to fight infections like coronavirus.

2. After infection the white blood cells recognise the coronavirus giving you long term immunity.

3. Sometime white blood cells get confused and attack healthy myelin in a similar way to how it attacks a virus. This is called MS.

4. MS treatments stop the white blood cells that target myelin, but not the ones that protect you from coronavirus.

5. This is why being treated for MS doesn't make you notably more vulnerable to coronavirus.