Progressive MS Projects Earn Research Challenge Awards

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by Patricia Inacio PhD |

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Research Challenge Awards

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada has granted its International Progressive MS Alliance (Alliance) Research Challenge Awards to 19 researchers for their work on progressive forms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Among them is Jennifer Gommerman, PhD, a professor at the University of Toronto, in Canada, who will use the funding to investigate the changes that occur in the brains of people with progressive MS and how it correlates with clinical disability.

The project will focus specifically on the interplay between the complement system and glial cells in the hippocampus, a brain region linked with memory and spatial navigation, and how their interaction can influence the way nerve cells communicate.

The complement system is a set of more than 30 blood proteins that form part of the body’s immune defenses. This part of the innate immune system has been linked with MS progression. Glial cells are non-neuronal cells whose main function is to support, protect, and repair neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

“This research will help us to understand how components of the innate immune system, particularly the complement system, communicate with glial cells in the hippocampus to change neuronal circuits. The ideas were conceived together with Dr. Valeria Ramaglia, a Research Associate in the Gommerman Lab,” Gommerman said in a press release.

The researchers will harness a powerful imaging technique, called imaging mass cytometry, to conduct a complete profile at the single-cell level of the complement proteins that are being produced at the nerve cell connections in people with progressive MS. These lesions are characterized by the loss of myelin, the protective cover that helps nerve cells conduct electric impulses, fueled by the presence of inflammatory immune cells.

Compared to traditional methods, imaging mass cytometry can detect dozens of proteins in a single tissue section. Gommerman has used this approach to study the immune cells found in brain lesions of MS patients.

“We’re excited that Dr. Gommerman has been recognized by the international MS community for her inventive approach that uses powerful technology to study how the immune system malfunctions in people with MS,” said Pam Valentine, president and CEO of the MS Society of Canada.

“This exciting project has the potential to bear fruit and create targeted treatments down the road that could ultimately slow down or stop disease progression in people living with MS,” added Valentine, who also serves as an executive committee member of the Alliance.

Each of the awardees will receive up to €75,000 ($89,295) for one year. The funds, totaling more than €1.4 million (almost $1.7 million) this year alone, will be delivered until the end of this year. The first results are expected in 2022.

The Research Challenge Awards were launched in 2014 to fund short-term innovative pilot studies with the goal of expediting the development of therapies for progressive MS.

This year’s winning projects come from researchers from 13 countries and focus on different areas of MS research, including the identification of the mechanisms underlying the loss of nerve fibers in progressive MS, as well as mechanisms of repair.

The selections were made by an international panel of MS experts and people affected by the disease. A full list of the 19 projects is available here.

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