Scientists Seek to Understand Effects of Pregnancy on Immune System

4-year research collaboration involves researchers in Australia and from Roche

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by Patricia Inacio, PhD |

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Roche has teamed up with researchers in Australia to study the immune and biological mechanisms leading to better outcomes for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients who are or have been pregnant.

The four-year project, led by Vilija Jokubaitis, PhD, a neuroscientist and group leader at Monash University, is expected to help design new therapies and novel approaches for accurately predicting the risk of disease progression and disability accumulation in women with MS.

“I’m very excited to kick off this project, one that I hope will help us to better understand some of the fundamental biological processes driving MS outcomes in a key group in our community,” Jokubaitis said in a Monash press release.

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MS disproportionately affects women during their childbearing years

In MS, the immune system launches a misguided inflammatory attack that damages and destroys the myelin sheath, a protective coating around nerve fibers needed for a rapid transmission of electric signals. The disease disproportionately affects women, who are roughly three times more likely to develop MS than men, and typically develops during the childbearing years.

While the causes of MS remain unknown, prior work by Jokubaitis and her team has shown that pregnancy can delay MS onset, and that women with a history of pregnancy accumulate less disability over the course of their disease.

The four-year partnership, part of Roche’s neuroscience program, aims to unveil how pregnancy may influence the immune system, both in women with MS and in healthy volunteers.

The knowledge from this project will help accelerate understanding about the interplay between pregnancy and the immune system, which may lead scientists to new ways to lessen disability progression.

I’m very excited to kick off this project, one that I hope will help us to better understand some of the fundamental biological processes driving MS outcomes in a key group in our community.

Collaboration will foster sharing of resources and creation of biobank

The partnership will foster the sharing of resources, including the creation of a unique biobank — a repository of biological samples and health information — between scientists at Monash and lead scientists at Roche.

Other scientists, including Helmut Butzkueven, PhD, and Anneke van der Walt, PhD, both neurologists and professors at Monash University, are involved in the project.

“This is a well-deserved recognition and a true reflection of the excellence of Dr Jokubaitis’ research work and leadership at Monash in the last five years,” said Butzkueven, head of the neuroscience department at Monash University.

Six MS specialist sites in Australia will be involved in the project, including researchers Kirsten Palmer, MD, PhD, associate professor, and Nevin John, PhD, neurologist at Monash Medical Centre; Olga Skibina, MD, neurologist at Eastern Health; Jeanette Lechner-Scott, MD, PhD, neurologist and professor at John Hunter Hospital; Pamela McCombe, MD, PhD, neurologist and professor from Brisbane and Women’s Hospital; and Allan Kermode, MD, PhD, professor at The Perron Institute.

“I am incredibly lucky to be supported by world-leading clinical and scientific collaborators locally, nationally and internationally in this truly multidisciplinary project,” said Jokubaitis.

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