The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has recently awarded $24.4 million in grants to support 64 research projects on multiple sclerosis (MS) worldwide, including $750,000 to fund 14 high-risk, high-reward pilot projects that will test new ideas and seek answers to new and relevant questions.
According to a society news release, these one-year pilot awards are meant to allow researchers to gather preliminary data to assess whether new ideas are worth pursuing. After the initial assessment, if the scientists feel confident their idea is worth taking to the next level, they may choose to apply for a long-term fellowship.
The Pilot Research Grants program is part of the society’s continuing efforts to seek a way to stop MS progression, restore nerve cells’ function, improve patients’ quality of life, and ultimately, find a cure. The program supports all types of projects, ranging from basic research to applied clinical and non-clinical studies.
A survey with previous pilot grant recipients showed that 90% agreed the funding had a positive impact on their research projects.
One former pilot grant awardee, Andrew Steelman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, recently published with colleagues their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In their study, “Influenza infection triggers disease in a genetic model of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis,” they explored how upper respiratory tract infections caused by common cold or flu viruses may be linked to MS relapses.
The team used the award to study how upper respiratory infection could modify the activity of brain cells.
They reported that viral infections change the transcriptomic profile of nerve cells, and increase the infiltration of immune cells into the brain, as well as the production of CXCL5, a chemokine or molecule that mediates the immune response. [Of note, transcriptomic profile refers to the group of RNA molecules, or transcripts, produced by active genes.]
Interestingly, high levels of CXCL5 have also been found in the cerebrospinal fluid (which circulates in the brain and spinal cord) of MS patients during relapses, but not during remissions. This suggests that the presence of CXCL5 could be the reason why MS patients who develop upper respiratory tract infections also show a greater risk of relapses.
Based on these findings, the team has received new funding from the National MS Society to investigate which specific signaling cascades are affected during upper respiratory tract infections. The researchers are also planning to test if antiviral medications can lessen the frequency of relapses, working in a mouse model of MS.
If these preclinical studies are successful, clinical trials assessing antiviral medications in eligible patients with MS relapses may follow.
Potentially high-reward pilot projects awarded grants this include, among others:
- A study aiming to understand if fatty molecules similar to cholesterol might repair the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells, taking place at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
- A project aiming to test whether consuming prebiotics (high-fiber foods) or probiotics (live microbes beneficial for the gut microbiome) alter the composition of gut bacteria in ways that might reduce MS disease activity, taking place at Columbia University, New York
- A study to determine if the use of virtual reality headsets can help reduce pain in MS patients, at New York University Langone Medical Center
- A project testing whether tai chi training and mindfulness meditation may help improve balance in MS patients, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- A study aiming to improve the care of MS patients living in Zambia (Africa) and to determine which factors (e.g. ethnicity, environment, genetics) may be important for MS onset worldwide, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore.
For a full list of society-funded pilot MS projects, please visit this link.