Johns Hopkins Neuroscientist Wins 2020 Barancik Prize for Innovation

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by Diana Campelo Delgado |

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The 2020 Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research has been awarded to neuroscientist Dwight E. Bergles, PhD, a Johns Hopkins University professor, for his work in understanding the function of brain cells in multiple sclerosis (MS).

This international prize awards $100,000 to the recipient.

Administered by the National MS Society, the prize seeks to “recognize and encourage exceptional innovation and originality in scientific research” into the causes and potential treatments for multiple sclerosis.

Myelin, the fat-rich substance that wraps around nerve fibers (axons), works to insulate and increase the velocity of signals relayed by nerve cells. Myelin loss is the underlying cause of diseases like MS.

Bergles’ work has been devoted to the understanding of immature cells, called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPC), that play a key role in providing myelin to neurons. When diseases, an injury, or age causes myelin loss, OPCs migrate to the place that needs repairing. Once there, they mature into myelin-producing cells called oligodendrocytes to fix the damage.

“This prize honors the creative studies that our group has conducted to deepen our understanding of oligodendrocyte progenitors,” Bergles said in an MS Society press release.

With his team, Bergles showed that OPCs could form direct connections with brain nerve cells and communicate through chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. This communication regulates OPCs’ behavior, determining if they mature into oligodendrocytes or if they remain dormant, the team found.

Bergles’ work also has focused on the failure of OPCs to regenerate mature oligodendrocytes in advanced MS stages. Using imaging techniques and fluorescent molecules in mice, his team was able to record, in real time, OPCs’ behavior in the brain. The resulting information on cells’ speed, movement, and interactions in the brain offers new insight into myelin repair.

Moreover, the team also discovered that after damage, myelin regeneration depends on the brain area where it occurs, suggesting that it may be region-specific. More recently, Bergles was involved in a study that suggested that OPCs could be involved in the immune response targeting the brain and spinal cord.

“In addition to the major contributions Dr. Bergles and his team have made to advance myelin repair research, he and his lab have also developed advanced research tools that have made it possible to answer critical research questions that advance strategies to restore function and improve quality of life in people with MS,” said Bruce Bebo, PhD, executive vice president of research programs at the National MS Society.

The Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research seeks to distinguish and support a scientist or team of scientists for outstanding novelty and originality in scientific research relevant to MS, particularly potential research on treatments and a cure for the disease.

The accompanying $100,000 award is made possible by the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, from where the prize gets its name.

“I hope that the recognition of this award will encourage more young scientists to devote themselves to uncovering the mysteries of these remarkable cells [OPCs] and develop new therapeutic approaches to accelerate myelin repair in multiple sclerosis,” Bergles said.

Bergles is a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore, and the director of the multiphoton imaging and electrophysiology core in the neuroscience department.

He will receive the award, and give the Barancik Prize lecture, at the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) virtual forum on Feb. 25.

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