Neuroscientist Ian D. Duncan has been awarded the 2020 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research for work that advanced understanding of how myelin, the protective sheath surrounding nerve cells, can be repaired in diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Professor Duncan has made a series of critical research advances that bring us closer to understanding how to restore function in people with MS by promoting myelin repair,” Bruce Bebo, PhD, executive vice president of research for the National MS Society, said in a press release.
The myelin sheath is a fat-rich substance that covers nerve fibers and allows signals relayed by nerve cells to be transmitted very rapidly. This protective coat is progressively damaged in MS, causing nerve cells of the central nervous system (CNS, the brain and spinal cord) to die.
Duncan, PhD, a professor of neurology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine, has dedicated his career to understanding the myelin sheath and to finding feasible ways to repair this protective coating in disorders related to myelin damage.
Throughout the years, Duncan has contributed to identifying a number of new myelin-related disorders in animals, some of which model diseases in humans, and to understanding oligodendrocytes — cells of the CNS that produce myelin.
His research focused on the isolation, characterization, and expansion of oligodendrocytes from both embryonic stem cells and brain stem cells in humans and animals.
Duncan also pioneered transplants of these myelinating cells into the spinal cord of animal models, devised ways to follow these cells using MRI scans, and showed that the transplanted cells could help to myelinate large areas of the CNS.
His research raised new treatment possibilities, as it showed that adult oligodendrocytes can help to repair the myelin sheath after damage has taken place, and that repairing this protective coating could help to restore nerve function.
“Dr. Duncan was one of the earliest investigators to tackle CNS repair in demyelinating disease and to uncover leads as to how to best achieve this. He has proven to be one of the early visionaries for this endeavor,” said Lawrence Steinman, MD with Stanford University and the recipient of the 2004 Dystel Prize.
“Dr. Duncan has been a leader in translating his laboratory findings to human disease,” added Bruce D. Trapp, PhD, the 2003 Dystel Prize winner. “For example, he identified a severe myelin disease model, through which he was able to provide unequivocal evidence that remyelination can restore neurological function. These studies have important implications for future clinical trials of remyelinating therapies in people living with multiple sclerosis.”
Duncan’s long-term goal is to use a well-characterized population of oligodendrocytes in clinical trials as a means to repair sites of myelin damage in the CNS of MS patients.
The Dystel Prize — which carries a $15,000 award — is given jointly each year by the National MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology to recognize outstanding research advancing the understanding of MS.
The prize comes from the John Dystel Multiple Sclerosis Research Fund at the National MS Society, established in 1994 by the late board member Oscar Dystel and his wife Marion in honor of their son, John Jay Dystel, an attorney whose career was shortened by the progressive disability caused by MS.
“I am extremely grateful to receive this award and to be recognized by my peers for my contributions to myelin research,” Duncan said. “I was fortunate to meet Oscar Dystel many years ago and hear about the accomplishments of his son, John. It is a great honor to join the distinguished list of past winners of the Dystel Prize.”
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