Harvard Professor Wins Dystel Prize for Uncovering MS Immune Mechanisms

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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Dystel MS Prize

The 2021 John Dystel Prize for multiple sclerosis (MS) research has been awarded to Vijay Kuchroo, PhD, a professor at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, for his work in uncovering the underlying immune mechanisms that drive the neurodegenerative disorder. 

“Professor Kuchroo’s research lays the groundwork for stopping the immune response in its tracks,” Bruce Bebo, PhD, executive vice president of research for the National MS Society, said in a press release announcing the award.

“This work is crucial to advancing the most promising pathways to MS cures,” Bebo said.

Established by the late Oscar Dystel, an MS Society board member, and his late wife, Marion, the $15,000 prize honors their son, John Jay Dystel, who died in 2003. The Dystel Prize, given annually since 1994, is funded by the MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology, called the AAN.

The award will be presented at the virtual AAN 2021 Annual Meeting this month, at which Kuchroo will deliver the Dystel Prize lecture.

His research has focused on the immune responses that cause damage to the myelin sheath — the fatty coating on nerve fibers that helps neurons send signals more efficiently — in the brain and spinal cord. This damage is the main cause of MS and leads to a variety of symptoms.

Kuchroo and his team have shown how specific myelin proteins are targeted by the immune system. The researcher developed a mouse model showing that a protein called myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein triggers inflammation in the optic nerve, a common first symptom in MS patients.

He also identified a molecule known as TIM-3 on the surface of immune T-cells that helps distinguish between inflammatory and regulatory T-cells. Indeed, Kuchroo found the entire TIM family of genes, which are essential in regulating immune responses. 

The investigator also has provided targets for the development of immune-modulating therapies. This was done by defining how the activation of T-cells drives the immune response in MS, and determining the specific immune signaling proteins involved. Under his guidance, this work was translated into studies involving MS patients.

“Prof. Kuchroo is a pioneer in the field of T cell biology and CNS [central nervous system] autoimmunity as it relates to MS,” said Howard Weiner, MD, of Harvard Medical School, a 2007 Dystel Prize recipient.

Weiner nominated Kuchroo for this year’s prize.

 “The immune system and autoimmunity are at the heart of MS,” Weiner said. “His [Kuchroo’s] work has had major impact and has opened up pathways that will lead to better treatment and ultimately a cure for MS.”

The Kuchroo team also has examined the role of antibody-producing immune B-cells in MS and found a molecule on their surface that regulates tissue inflammation. This finding is now being investigated in patients. 

“I am thrilled to receive the Dystel prize for the work we did on multiple sclerosis,” Kuchroo said. “We generated a number of animal models for the disease, and these models are used world-over in the laboratories doing MS research.” 

“I launched my career with a pilot grant from the National MS Society, and I am grateful to the society for their continued support,” he added. 

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