A collective team of physician-researchers comprising Dr. Peter Calabresi from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Dr. Laura Balcer from NYU Langone Medical Center, and Dr. Elliot Frohman from University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine are the winners of the 2015 Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research. The honor recognizes and encourages exceptional innovation and originality in scientific research relevant to the multiple sclerosis (MS) field.
The team has been studying the biology and anatomy of the retina and other eye structures in MS patients for almost 10 years, resulting in original, pioneering and impactful research. In their more than 50 published studies, members have “written the book” on the application of optical coherence tomography (OCT), an eye scanning technique, in the study of MS.
OCT uses light to capture micrometer-resolution, three-dimensional images from within optical scattering media (e.g., biological tissue). It is based on low-coherence interferometry, typically employing near-infrared light.
Largely because of the research team’s effort, OCT has moved from a method used by ophthalmologists to treat patients with glaucoma to a standard tool now used to study underlying disease mechanisms in MS. Its application to other neurodegenerative conditions is also under investigation, and thought likely.
“We’re thrilled to present the 2015 Barancik Prize to Dr. Balcer, Calabresi and Frohman,” said Dr. Timothy Coetzee, Chief Advocacy, Services and Research Officer at the National MS Society, in a recent press release. “This team has used innovative research on the eye to open up a window to brain health and damage, making it possible to apply widely available tools to track clinical care and clinical trial outcomes in people with MS, while offering novel insights into pathology of the disease.”
Studies found that OCT is able to identify unpredicted damage in nerve fibers at the back of the eye that is similar to more global damage to the brain during the course of MS disease, making it an important tool to measure treatment outcomes in both clinical practice and in clinical trial testing of new treatment options. It has also associated different types of eye nerve fiber damage to outcomes in the loss of visual acuity and to vision-related quality of life.
The team, which leads the International MS Visual Consortium, was able to demonstrate that OCT is a critical and accessible tool both in clinical trials and patient care, and thus a novel pathogenesis biomarker for MS.
Various clinical studies investigating disease-modifying therapies are now incorporating OCT measurement in clinical outcomes. Ongoing and new clinical trials testing novel neuroprotection drugs have emphasized the use of OCT as a strong alternative or indirect measure of nerve fiber injury and health.
The team’s success also demonstrated to the scientific and clinical community the value of selfless partnership and open collaboration. Introduced by Dr. Steven Galetta, currently the Philip K. Moskowitz Professor and Chair of Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, the researchers entered a partnership that has set the bar for research collaboration. Their sharing of data, protocols and funding led to the creation of one of the strongest databases in the history of MS research, complete with longitudinal data, a robust record of scientific publications, and a legacy of passionate trainees.
“Receiving the Barancik Prize is a great day for team science,” noted Dr. Balcer, “and it means even more in that it recognizes the group for a collaboration we all love because each of us are inspired by our patients.”
“I am very optimistic about the future, but I’d like to see things happen more quickly, ” said Dr. Calabresi. “This is one of the reasons I am so honored and humbled to have earned the Barancik Prize and love the fact that we won it as a team, because that really symbolizes the right approach to science today, which is collaboration.”
“Fundamentally, science has been principally driven by competition,” added Dr. Frohman. “I believe the collaborative work our group has done across our three centers, now expanding into 35 centers around the world, recognizes an iconic moment in science. The winning of the Barancik Prize, I believe, is a validation of the importance of the collaborative work our group is doing in the field of MS and a recognition of that iconic change in doing scientific research.”
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