Philip De Jager Awarded 2014 Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research

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by Patricia Silva, PhD |

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Philip L. De JagerThe National Multiple Sclerosis Society granted the 2014 Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research to Philip Laurence De Jager, MD, PhD, who is a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, as well as an associate professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School. The award, meant to honor progress in multiple sclerosis (MS) research, was given to De Jager for his work on the application of powerful analytic approaches in the understanding of the interaction between genes and the environment in order to develop personalized treatments, and prevent the disease.

The international award, which is funded by the Charles and Margery Barancik SO Foundation, seeks to encourage innovation and originality of research regarding MS, with a special focus on projects that may lead to finding a cure for the disease. Therefore, De Jager was chosen based on his work, wherein he was able to design a genetic map of the susceptibility of MS, that is expected to lead to a better understanding of its functioning.

“We’re thrilled to present the 2014 Barancik Prize to Dr. De Jager for his visionary approach towards understanding the genetic architecture of MS,” stated the Chief Advocacy of Services and Research Officer at the National MS Society, Timothy Coetzee. “Dr. De Jager has leveraged his deep understanding of the clinical context of MS with his background in molecular genetics and immunology, to design new ways of approaching and answering challenging MS questions.”

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The neurologist used the International MS Genetics Consortium (IMSGC), of which he is a founding member, to create his definitive genetic map, which he is currently using to study the functional consequences of the genetic risk factors related to the disease. His ultimate goal is to be able to develop a personalized way of predicting, treating, and preventing multiple sclerosis. The MS Genomic Map is planned to be released in 2015 by the IMSGC.

In addition, De Jager has also been responsible for a series of novel projects to study patients, including the PhenoGenetic, enrolling more than 1,800 healthy individuals, and Genes & Environment in MS (GEMS), with over 3,000 MS patients’ family members. The long-term studies he conducts are designed to answer questions like the reasons for the development of the disease or the differences between some patients’ reactions to medication or treatments.

“Overall, I see two compelling and complementary projects,” explained De Jager. “First is to understand a person’s trajectory from not having MS to their diagnosis.  Here, identifying a treatment for the prevention of MS is a key goal of our studies, but it requires a complementary approach to identify the individuals at highest risk of developing the disease since most family members do not develop MS.”

“The second project is to gather enough data on a single, large set of MS patients to set the stage for an impactful discovery effort to understand MS-related neurodegeneration,” he added about his long-term studies including patients, families and healthy individuals, in which he used patient-powered web platforms, electronic health records ,and smartphone-based tools to better characterize the participants.

The neurologist has participated in nearly all of the great discoveries and advancements made regarding gene function and MS over the last decade. He has led the meta-analysis of genome scanning, published by the Consortium in 2009. Most recently, he was at the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research In MS / European Committee for Treatment and Research In MS (ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS Conference), where he presented the latest research from the Consortium, a genetic study with more than 80,000 subjects that identified at least 159 gene variants of MS.

In addition to his professorial positions, De Jager is the director for basic and translational research at the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also an associate member of the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was granted the Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar Award from the National MS Society in 2008.

With a BS in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and French literature from Yale University, De Jager completed his PhD in neurogenetics at The Rockefeller University and his M.D. at Cornell University Medical College. The neurologist’s curriculum also includes an MMSc program in clinical investigation at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Multiple sclerosis is a disabling disease of the central nervous system, for which there is no cure. It blocks communication between the brain and the body, causing numbness, tingling, blindness, or paralysis, among other symptoms. Researchers continue to work on finding a better treatment for the disease, and the Baracik prize aims to recognize that. Nominations for the 2015 award will be open between November 1, 2014 and January 31, 2015 on its website.

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