This year’s John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research is being awarded to Anne H. Cross, a neurologist and MS chair in the department of neuroimmunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, for her research into the role of immune B-cells in multiple sclerosis attacks and new imaging approaches to track disease activity.
The peer-decided award is given annually by the National MS Society (NMSS) and the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) to recognize expectional work in this disease, and 2019 marks its 25th year. The Dystel Prize was established in 1994 by the parents of John Jay Dystel, an attorney who died in 2003 of complications resulting from progressive MS.
Cross will receive the award and give the prize lecture on May 8 at the AAN Annual Meeting, taking place in Philadelphia, May 4-10.
“I’m thrilled about the Dystel Prize,” Cross said in a press release. “It lets me know that my career’s work has led to something meaningful.”
She highlighted the support she has received from the NMSS in her research work, including a Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar Award in 1990, and a five-year career development award for young scientists. “I wouldn’t have my career without the Society,” Cross said.
A practicing neurologist as well as professor, Cross is also co-director of Washington University’s John L. Trotter MS Center.
Emmanuel Waubant, MD and a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, nominated Cross for the prize. “She was the very first to demonstrate the role of B-cells, initially in animal models of MS and later in MS,” Waubant said, adding that her search led to treatments targeting these cells.
“She very boldly investigated the role of B-cells despite the field’s dogma at that time that claimed T-cells were the main cell type contributing to MS onset and worsening,” Waubant said. “Her research has always been at the forefront of the field, and often provocative.”
Cross also pioneered the clinical development of the B cell-depleting therapy rituximab, which contributed to the 2017 approval of Ocrevus (ocrelizumab, by Genentech) in the U.S. — the first disease modifying for people with primary progressive MS as well as relapsing disease forms.
The link between B-cell depletion and clinical improvements remains a research focus, Cross said, adding: “we still don’t know exactly how B-cell depletion works or why B-cells are so critical in MS activity.”
She also helped to develop imaging techniques that access disease progression and nerve injury, so to enable their earlier detection. Cross’ work also showed that diet — calorie restriction — eases the disease in animal models, which led to clinical trials of approaches such as intermittent fasting.
Cross has also mentored and trained scientists, served as a volunteer peer reviewer of research proposals, and was chair of NMSS’ Research Programs Advisory Committee.
Peter A. Calabresi, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center, said Cross is “not only a creative, productive, and humanistic leader, but her early and translational work on B-cells have been seminal contributions.”
“Her expansive knowledge of MS combined with her outstanding creativity and mentoring skills have allowed her to build a world-class MS center that is now making major contributions to several other unique domains of research,” he added.
In 2018, the John Dystel Prize was awarded to Professor Frederik Barkhof, MD, PhD, for contributions that included the development of magnetic resonance imaging criteria that enable an earlier and more reliable diagnosis of MS.