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2015 John Dystel Prize for MS Research Goes To Prof. Alastair Compston at the University of Cambridge -- For Driving Breakthroughs in Therapeutic Immunology and Genetics

April 20, 2015

Alastair Compston, PhD, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Neurology and Head, Department of Clinical Neurosciences at University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, has been chosen by a committee of his peers to receive the National MS Society/American Academy of Neurology’s 2015 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research. Professor Compston is being honored for driving advances in immunology from the laboratory to the clinic, and for his pivotal role in an international collaboration that revolutionized MS genetics research.  The $15,000 prize is being presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Washington, DC.

“Professor Compston is that rare person  who conducts research on the most fundamental aspects of the biology of MS, and yet works tirelessly to translate that understanding into improving the lives of people who live with MS,” says Timothy Coetzee, PhD, Chief Advocacy, Services and Research Officer of the National MS Society. “His impressive track record of making important, high impact findings and forging collaborations to propel progress make him a very worthy recipient of the Dystel Prize.”

“The advances in treatment of multiple sclerosis seen in the last 20 years have been remarkable and unmatched by therapies developed for any other neurological disease,” said Professor Compston. “I am conscious of the enormous contributions made by many clinicians, scientists and people with multiple sclerosis who enabled the successful outcome of this work.”

Dr. Compston’s contributions:

Immunology – Bench to Bedside:
Dr. Compston defined the mechanisms by which immune cells injure and kill myelin-making cells during the attack on the brain and spinal cord that occurs in MS. He identified the specific molecules – “Fc receptor ligand” and “TNF-alpha” – that activate immune cells in the brain called microglia to injure myelin-making cells.

In 1991, Prof. Compston joined with other Cambridge colleagues to bring his knowledge of the immune attack from the bench to the bedside, by researching a therapeutic strategy for stopping this attack early. The team worked for more than two decades to complete the clinical research that led to the regulatory approval of Lemtrada™ (Alemtuzumab, Genzyme, a Sanofi Company) as a disease-modifying therapy for people with relapsing forms of MS.

MS Genetics:
Prof. Compston’s work on the genetic analysis of MS transformed understanding of gene factors that make people susceptible to developing the disease. His team published some of the first studies pinpointing the contribution of the HLA, immune-related genes, to MS susceptibility. In the late 1990s, Prof. Compston and colleagues encouraged genetics researchers across Europe to collaborate in GAMES (Genetic Analysis of Multiple Sclerosis in Europeans Consortium), which was funded in part by the National MS Society.  They then joined with researchers in the U.S. to form the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium (IMSGC), a global effort to discover all of the common genetic risk variants in MS. After studies involving over 80,000 people, the IMSGC has identified to date more than 159 genetic variations related to MS.

“Alastair Compston has impacted practically every aspect of multiple sclerosis research and is internationally recognized as an expert in the disease,” noted fellow Cambridge Professors Stephen Sawcer and Alasdair Coles, who nominated him for the prize. “As the foremost international spokesperson in the field of MS he is a voice of reason, bringing out the best in all of his colleagues,” added Stephen L. Hauser, MD (University of California, San Francisco), who supported the nomination.

Sharing Knowledge:
In addition to his contributions to MS research, Compston built up the neurology department at Addenbrooke’s Hospital at Cambridge from a small group to a team of over 300 doctors, scientists, and support staff, including a strong clinical neuroscience research group. He also helped to create a network of clinical care within the United Kindgom, improving the level of care, and expanding neurology training opportunities. 

Prof. Compston has been an active member of numerous committees, advisory panels, societies and. As editor of Brain from 2004-2013 he lead one of the highest impact neurology journals. His former trainees now lead research groups in many MS research centers in the United Kingdom. He was lead Editor of two editions of the recognized authoritative textbook McAlpine’s Multiple Sclerosis.

Prof. Compston is author of more than 600 publications on clinical neuroscience. He has served on advisory committees for the U.K.’s Medical Research Council, the U.K. MS Society, the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, and the Wellcome Trust, among others.

About the Prize: The $15,000 Dystel Prize is given jointly by the National MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology, and is funded through the Society’s John Dystel Multiple Sclerosis Research Fund. The late Society National Board member Oscar Dystel and his late wife Marion established this fund in 1994 in honor of their son John Jay Dystel, an attorney whose promising career was cut short by progressive disability from MS. (John died of complications of the disease in June 2003.) Previous winners of the Prize are Drs. Donald Paty (1995), Cedric Raine (1996), John Kurtzke (1997), Henry McFarland (1998), W. Ian McDonald (1999), Kenneth Johnson (2000), John Prineas (2001), Stephen Waxman (2002), Bruce Trapp (2003), Lawrence Steinman (2004), Jack Antel (2005), William Sibley (2006), Howard Weiner (2007), Stephen Hauser (2008), David Miller (2009), David Hafler (2010), Brian Weinshenker (2011), Richard Ransohoff (2012), George Ebers (2013), and Barry Arnason (2014). Read more about other Dystel Prize winners.

Biography: Alastair Compston, PhD, MBBS, FRCP, is Professor of Neurology and Head of the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge. He received his degree from the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in the United Kingdom, and trained in neurology at the National Hospital, Queen Square. Prof. Compston previously served as professor of neurology at the University of Wales. He was formerly president of the European Neurological Society and the Association of British Neurologists. Prof. Compston is a fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, and foreign associate member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of the USA. He has received the Sobek Foundation International Research Prize, the Charcot Award of MS International Federation, the K-J Zülch Prize of the Max Planck Society, the McDonald Award of the MS Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the World Federation of Neurology Medal for Scientific Achievement in Neurology, and the Hughlings Jackson Medal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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