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Dr. Jonah Chan Drives Progress On Myelin Repair

 

Dr. Jonah ChanA team at the University of California, San Francisco led by Jonah Chan, PhD, National MS Society Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar, has identified a group of compounds approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for various disorders that might also stimulate myelin repair. One of these compounds, clemastine, an oral antihistamine used to treat allergy symptoms is currently being investigated in a phase II clinical trial.

Current MS therapies are largely aimed at dampening the immune system. However, finding therapy solutions that repair damage to myelin and nerve fibers is a key priority in research supported by the Society. One challenge in developing repair strategies has been identifying possible therapeutic targets. The fact that compounds need to be observed for their ability to form myelin around nerve fibers has limited the speed at which the impact of compounds could be screened.

To overcome this challenge, Dr. Jonah Chan invented a new technology to rapidly identify compounds that stimulate the regrowth of myelin. In his invention, myelin-making cells called oligodendrocytes form myelin around each micropillar, a tiny tube looking somewhat like the rings of a tree. They can then quickly spot which micropillars have myelin – a process which is now automated, permitting the team to test over 1000 drug compounds for their ability to promote functional myelination. This research breakthrough earned him the first Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research, an international prize launched in 2013 to recognize innovation and progress in MS research.

With this technology they identified a group of eight compounds that are approved by the FDA to treat various disorders. Dr. Chan and colleagues followed up by administering one of these compounds – clemastine, an oral antihistamine used to treat allergy symptoms – to mice with myelin damage. Analysis performed 14 days later revealed enhanced development of oligodendrocytes and accelerated myelin repair when compared with untreated control mice.

Based on these findings, a clinical trial of clemastine is getting underway in people with relapsing MS who show signs of damage in their eyes by the University of California, San Francisco team. This short trial may provide hints of benefit needed to determine clemastine’s potential in other types of MS. By further investigating clemastine and the other promising compounds identified by this novel approach, myelin repair solutions may soon make their way into the growing arsenal of therapies aimed at improving the lives of people with MS.

 

Did You Hear the Excitement from the World’s Largest MS Meeting?

In September, over 8,500 investigators convened in Boston, MA to present findings at the ACTRIMS/ECTRIMS (Americas and European Committees for Treatment and Research in MS) joint meeting, the world’s largest gathering dedicated to MS research.

More than 1,000 scientific presentations covered virtually every aspect of research to stop MS, restore function, and end MS forever. Among these were the latest results from trials of emerging therapies, nervous system repair and rehabilitative strategies, progressive MS solutions and much more.

Visit www.nationalmssociety.org/ectrims to access blog posts on promising advancements, videos featuring leading scientists and a full report on ACTRIMS/ECTRIMS.

Our Highest Priority: Finding Solutions For People With MS

It was profoundly exciting to be at the world’s largest research meeting, ACTRIMS/ECTRIMS (Americas and European Committees for Treatment and Research in MS), that took place in Boston this month. The energy and commitment seen in the thousands of investigators in attendance was incredible. In addition, the International Progressive MS Alliance announced our first funding commitments at the conference. The research community’s response to the Alliance’s first call for innovative research proposals has been exceptional and speaks to both the unmet need and the galvanizing force of this international initiative. For the first time, MS Societies around the world are funding research together, without considering geography, in order to find the answers people with progressive MS urgently need.

Finding solutions for people with MS is the National MS Society’s highest priority, and the only way we’ll accomplish it is by working together. Research advances require your continued contributions as well as those from bright scientists like Drs. Chan and Matsushima, who are featured in this edition. Your support ensures that people with MS live their best lives as we stop MS in its tracks, restore what has been lost and end MS forever. Thank you for your enduring support!

Yours truly,

 

Reingold Award Winner Seeks Nerve-Protecting Solution

Glenn Matsushima, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Matsushima is a longtime MS researcher who has uncovered the function of several important molecules affecting the immune response. He received the Stephen C. Reingold Award in June for the year’s most outstanding research proposal, a project investigating FDA approved medicines that may reduce or halt progressive disability in MS.

What enticed you to get involved in MS research?

I had been interested in neuroimmunology very early in the field when immune molecules were first found in the brain. Over the years, I had been exposed to various models of demyelination [myelin damage] and studied immune responses that could lead to myelin damage. When people I know were diagnosed with MS and there were very few interventions, I tried to come up with alternative perspectives.

Your current grant, which earned you the Reingold Award, focuses on screening therapies already approved by the FDA for other disorders. What are you looking for?

From animal studies by my lab, we realized that certain factors may be able to delay or inhibit the early part of the demyelination. When other studies on MS patients did not result in reducing symptoms, we decided to search for chemical compounds that could enter the brain and prevent the death of the myelinating cells. We have certain compounds that appear promising but they require some modifications which we are now testing.

What do you think are some advantages of this approach?

We hope to find compounds that could be more easily adopted for clinical use and might be able to complement the current immunosuppressive drugs used to treat MS.

You are a member of a newly funded Collaborative MS Research Center led by Dr. Jenny Ting at Chapel Hill. What do you think this kind of collaborative model adds to research efforts?

The Center grant provides not only addition funds to promote research that the MS Society deems important, but the collaboration among several investigators is enhanced with greater interactions, the sharing of reagents and tools, and the fostering of new scientists into the group who may contribute new ideas to solve the issues of MS.

You also serve as a volunteer peer reviewer for the National MS Society. In what ways do you find current research promising for people with MS?

The MS Society has continued to be innovative in carrying out their mission to end MS and to provide ways for patients and caregivers to cope with the disease. The current research appears quite comprehensive in seeking new avenues to expand how we might be able to treat or prevent specific stages of MS. There might not be just one target but multiple targets toward which we may need to place our attention. I believe the innovative studies supported by the Society should result in new treatments for MS.

Is there anything else you find promising on the horizon that may help people with MS?

I believe studies on patients with MS or studies on autopsy samples remain critical to correlate disease to the animal studies. Several studies supported by the Society have helped researchers identify new genes that may be linked to the MS population and we continue to find new processes that lead to disease. Equally important, more attention is being placed on processes that promote repair or prevent damage to the brain. Currently, several groups have identified new targets and hopefully, this will lead to new treatments for MS.

International Progressive MS Alliance Funding Announced

The International Progressive MS Alliance has awarded a first round of 22 research grants to investigators in 9 countries with the goal of removing barriers to developing treatments for progressive MS. The Alliance is a worldwide collaborative focused on finding solutions to progressive forms of multiple sclerosis that have so far eluded the scientific community.

This first round of funding launches an ambitious program that will cumulatively invest nearly $30 million over the next six years and will forge international collaborative research networks -- leveraging research already underway and stimulating new research through the Alliance’s significant funding programs.

For this initial round, 195 research proposals were received from 22 countries. These first grants are short-term innovative pilot studies to begin filling knowledge and infrastructure gaps such as identifying and testing potential treatments; understanding nerve degeneration; and building databanks and biobanks -- repositories of biological samples for use in research -- to better understand long-term imaging, genetics, and outcomes associated with progressive MS. These pilot studies have terms of one to two years.

Strategic funding priorities of the Alliance are being guided by renowned MS researchers from multiple disciplines and countries. They focus on:

  • Better understanding progression so treatments can be identified
  • Designing shorter, faster clinical trials
  • Conducting trials to test agents that stop or reverse progression
  • Developing and evaluating new therapies to manage symptoms

“By bringing attention to progressive MS, convening academic and industry leaders, and offering a new source of grant funding to researchers around the world, the Alliance is positioning itself to accelerate results and to change the lives of people living with progressive MS,” commented Dr. Alan Thompson, Chair of the Alliance’s Scientific Steering Committee and Dean of University College London Faculty of Brain Sciences.

To ensure accelerated progress, the Alliance will be releasing another Request for Applications in November. To learn more about the Alliance, details of the 22 new research awards and upcoming Request for Applications, please visit www.ProgressiveMSAlliance.org

Witness the Society’s process for identifying the most promising MS research!

The Society offers numerous opportunities throughout the year to observe prominent scientific volunteer leaders rigorously review and recommend the most promising MS research to move forward. Connect with the Society to learn more about upcoming opportunities for engagement!

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