Neurologist Rhonda Voskuhl wins prize for work on MS sex differences

UCLA researcher will receive award at American Academy of Neurology meeting

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by Mary Chapman |

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A scientist works with a petri dish in a lab, alongside a rack of four vials filled with liquid.

A globally recognized neurologist and scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has won the 2024 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research for her work to improve women’s care through a better understanding of the mechanisms behind sex differences in multiple sclerosis (MS).

Rhonda Voskuhl, who is the UCLA’s Jack H. Skirball Professor of Multiple Sclerosis Research, will receive the unrestricted $40,000 award on April 14 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Denver. She’ll also present the Dystel Prize lecture during the program.

The Dystel Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to research in understanding, treating, or preventing MS, and is awarded jointly by the National MS Society (NMSS) and the American Academy of Neurology. It was established in 1994 by Oscar Dystel and his wife, Marion, both deceased, to honor their son, John Jay Dystel, an attorney who died in 2003 from MS complications.

Voskuhl, who directs the UCLA Multiple Sclerosis Program, is also a faculty neurologist in the Comprehensive Menopause Care Program at UCLA Health. Last year, she was awarded the inaugural Rachel Horne Prize for Women’s Research in MS for her work on the impact of menopause on neurodegeneration and identifying prospective treatments.

“Professor Voskuhl has been a driving force in elevating our understanding of the mechanisms involved in sex differences in MS,” Bruce Bebo, PhD, executive vice president of research at the NMSS, said in a UCLA press release. “She is one of very few clinician-scientists who has made basic laboratory discoveries and then translated those discoveries and tested them in clinical trials to find treatments for people with MS.”

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Research into differences in MS between men, women

Voskuhl earned a medical degree from Vanderbilt Medical School and has conducted extensive basic and clinical research to understand why MS is about three times as common among women as men. Scientists have long pointed to chromosomal and hormonal differences among the sexes as a likely reason.

Voskuhl, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the neuroimmunology branch of the National Institutes of Health, made “landmark” discoveries about the influence of sex chromosomes and hormones in lab models, then translated those findings to the clinic.

She also conducted four clinical trials that assessed the effect of sex hormone treatment on MS patients and discovered that a gene on female sex chromosomes promotes inflammation. Voskuhl also investigated the brain-protective effects of the sex hormone estrogen as well as other estrogen receptor molecules that bind to docking sites. The research could result in new therapeutic strategies to shield the nervous system and halt MS, the NMSS noted in its press release.

“I am thankful to the National MS Society for their pivotal support of my work since its inception,” said Voskuhl, MD. “Their stature as an organization that supports MS researchers and patients through critical programs for discovery of new treatments and supportive care strategies is unsurpassed and has been essential over the decades. Together, our mission is to improve lives. Now is a time of hope and exponential progress in the MS field.”

Voskuhl was nominated for the Dystel Prize by 2019 winner Anne Cross, MD, of Washington University and another previous recipient, Lawrence Steinman, MD, of Stanford University.

“Dr. Voskuhl has prioritized women with MS in her research approach for decades. She works in the laboratory, but she is also a neurologist and has already demonstrated her ability to translate her laboratory’s impactful research findings directly to the clinic,” Cross said.