New MS Grant Winners to Explore Disease Risk, Prevalence in Australia

Team will investigate if MS cases are increasing across continent

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by Mary Chapman |

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The newest recipients of the MS Australia incubator grants will seek novel ways to prevent and treat multiple sclerosis (MS) and explore the prevalence and incidence of the neurodegenerative disorder in different parts of the country.

One scientist will use the funding to explore disease risk factors — and determine why the number of new MS cases may be on the rise in certain regions of Australia.

Overall, some AU$180,000 ($125,000) in funding will be dispersed among four research projects plus a postgraduate scholarship investigation. These awards, from MS Australia, support innovative concepts and the production of preliminary data that may lead to larger future grants.

For each dollar invested in the year-long incubator grants, recipients have historically been able to get an extra AU$27 (about $18.50) in subsequent funding, advancing their areas of research, according to the nonprofit. The postgraduate scholarship is for three years.

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Julia Morahan, PhD, MS Australia’s head of research, said the grants “allow new and important questions to be asked that will lead us closer to the answers we need to ensure multiple sclerosis is where it needs to be — behind us.”

“In this our 50th year, our mission is to supercharge MS research and advocate with vigour, to achieve our ultimate goal: a world without MS,” Morahan said in a press release from the nonprofit.

Investigating multiple sclerosis prevalence

Among the grant recipients is Bruce Taylor, MD, a professor at the University of Tasmania, who will use his AU$22,430 (nearly $15,500) award to measure the prevalence and incidence of multiple sclerosis in three areas in Australia that are on different latitudes.

Taylor recently found that the Australian city of Hobart, which historically had a higher number of MS patients — believed to be due to a greater distance from the equator — is now reaching similar case frequencies as cities at other latitudes.

His research is expected to indicate whether more study is needed regarding lifestyle factors — such as sun exposure and vitamin D levels — in terms of MS risk.

“This may explain why the disease is more common in Tasmania than in locations closer to the equator. If we could identify the risk factors and reduce them by just 50%, we could significantly reduce the risk of MS globally,” he said.

For Vivien Li, MD, of the Royal Melbourne Hospital VIC, the AU$24,990 (about $17,200) grant will allow her to use new MRI technology to investigate how changes in disease-modifying treatments affect MS disease activity. Li will employ a 7-Tesla MRI scanner — one of two in Australia — that has a much greater resolution than standard hospital scanners.

“This research will study how brain inflammation is affected by stopping or pausing treatment using new MRI technologies, which provide better images, comparing them to routine hospital scans to see if smaller and subtler changes of MS activity can be identified,” she said.

Belinda Kaskow, PhD, of Murdoch University, will use her AU$16,000 (just over $11,000) grant to study whether specific parts of the immune system are already abnormal in people with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS). These individuals have experienced a first episode of MS symptoms, but have not yet been diagnosed with the disease.

Her work may help in developing treatment approaches to prevent people with CIS from experiencing additional relapses and progressing to clinically definite MS.

“Understanding immune system dysfunction at the earliest clinical time point to study MS allows us to better understand the disease course so that we can develop therapies to halt disease progression,”  Kaskow said.

The goal for Alistair Govier-Cole, PhD, of Monash University, is to understand how oligodendrocytes — cells that usually repair the protective myelin sheath around nerve fibers — may help perpetuate an autoimmune reaction against myelin in MS patients. His grant is for AU$13,750 (nearly $9,500).

“Knowing that every scientific contribution we can make to better understand MS is one small step closer to the dream of eventually curing MS, or at least making it more treatable and improving the quality of life of people with MS, provides a lot of motivation,” Govier-Cole said.

The largest grant, a post-graduate scholarship worth AU$105,000 (about $72,000), was awarded to Samuel Klistorner, of the University of Sydney. He plans to use the funding to study better ways to monitor nervous system degeneration in MS, as well as the prospective effect of treatments to prevent damage to brain tissue around chronic lesions.

“My research, in collaboration with neurologists, scientists, and fellow researchers, will help to develop biomarkers that can one day be used in drug trials for treatment,” Klistorner said.

MS Australia said all of the 2022 funding is going toward “‘out-of-the-box’ Australian research projects that will explore innovative ways to prevent and treat multiple sclerosis.”

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