Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research goes to UCSF scientist

Researcher's work focuses on 'big data,' aids in Pathways to Cures roadmap

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by Steve Bryson, PhD |

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Sergio E. Baranzini, PhD, a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is this year’s winner of the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research, awarded by the  National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) for his groundbreaking discoveries in multiple sclerosis (MS).

His efforts have helped integrate large pools of information, or so-called big data, for better understanding of the complex mechanisms underlying MS. Baranzini’s work also has supported the development of more precise therapies that aim to stop or prevent the disease — contributing to the NMSS’ Pathways to Cures roadmap, which tracks innovative research to stop MS.

The Barancik Prize aims to acknowledge and promote innovation and originality in MS-related research, with an emphasis on the work’s potential impact on the development of new multiple sclerosis treatments and cures. Managed by the nonprofit NMSS, with the support of the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, the annual prize also recognizes scientific accomplishments that demonstrate future leadership in MS.

“Professor Baranzini has the vision and creativity to apply the power of global collaborations and big data to tackle complex questions surrounding multiple sclerosis,” Bruce Bebo, PhD, NMSS’s executive vice president of research programs, said in a press release from the organization.

“He is truly a trailblazer whose important contributions are driving progress in understanding multiple sclerosis and translating them to advance pathways to MS cures,” Bebo added.

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The prize is $100,000, which may be used at the awardee’s discretion.

Baranzini, a geneticist, neuroimmunologist, and data scientist, is a distinguished professor at UCSF and holds the Heidrich Friends and Family endowed chair in neurology.

“Tackling a multifaceted disease like MS demands that we exhibit audacity, aspiration, and innovative thinking in our scientific endeavors, encapsulating the inherent spirit of ‘big science,’” Baranzini said.

“I am deeply honored by this distinction, a testament to the collective achievements of numerous individuals over many years of dedicated work,” he added.

Through global collaborations, Baranzini has integrated the vast datasets generated by advanced technologies, leading to several key contributions in MS research, according to the NMSS.

To understand the role of the gut microbiome on MS, Baranzini established the international MS microbiome study (iMSMS). Its ultimate goal is to find new approaches, such as probiotics or diet, to adjust microbial composition in the gut and improve the course of MS.

Already, more than 2,000 participants have been enrolled, making it the most extensive MS microbiome study to date. By analyzing large datasets, patterns of specific bacteria that may reflect disease triggers or beneficial properties are starting to emerge. A recent study using iMSMS data showed a number of bacterial species that are altered in MS patients compared with healthy people living in the same household.

Tackling a multifaceted disease like MS demands that we exhibit audacity, aspiration, and innovative thinking in our scientific endeavors, encapsulating the inherent spirit of ‘big science.’

In a decade-long effort, Baranzini led a collaborative project to develop SPOKE, a massive database holding the entire body of biomedical information generated over the past 50 years via research and medical practice. Artificial intelligence will be applied to SPOKE data to detect patterns suggestive of MS years before a diagnosis, which may lead to MS prevention.

In collaboration last year with the University of Cambridge, in the U.K., Baranzini also published the largest study ever to understand the genetic basis of MS progression. The team identified a genetic variant linked with faster MS progression and more brain tissue damage using data on more than 12,500 patients in North America, Europe, and Australia.

“Crucially, ‘big science’ is a symbol of collaborative efforts, as it thrives on the diversity of disciplines, a plethora of ideas, and the innovative dynamism borne out of scientists’ joint efforts,” Baranzini said.

“I fervently hope that this accolade will inspire a fresh wave of collaborative researchers in the MS field to take on the remaining crucial challenges in our quest to stop, restore, and end MS,” Baranzini added.