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Dr. Kenneth P. Johnson, One of the World’s Leading Innovators in MS Research and Treatment Has Died

September 8, 2011

Dr. Ken Johnson, former chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and internationally known expert in multiple sclerosis died Saturday, September 3rd, of cancer at age 79.

A distinguished neurologist who has been a leader in the movement to end MS for more than four decades, Dr. Johnson was recognized for his leadership in designing and conducting controlled, multi-center clinical trials to test treatments for MS, and for his pioneering laboratory efforts to identify an infectious trigger of the disease.  He was also admired for his focus on professional education in MS and his dedication to aggressive symptom management and rehabilitation to improve the quality of life of those living with MS.

Dr. Johnson played a key role in the national clinical trials that led to FDA approval of the disease modifying therapy glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) in 1996 and was one of the first researchers to explore the potential benefits of beta-interferon as treatment for MS in the 1970s.  This led to FDA approval of the first disease modifying therapy, Betaseron, in 1993.

“The world is a better place and the lives of people with MS have a brighter future,  thanks to the contributions made by Dr. Johnson,” says Joyce Nelson,  retiring President and CEO of the National MS Society. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to know this great and kind man.”

Dr. Johnson spearheaded the foundation in 1996 of the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in MS and was a leading force in the Consortium of MS Centers.  As head of the Maryland Center for MS, he built the neurology department at the University of Maryland from 10 faculty members to 35 before his retirement in 2001, gaining the group international prestige along the way.

The author of more than 175 scientific articles published in worldwide medical journals, Dr. Johnson was awarded the Dystel Prize by the National MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology for his groundbreaking research in developing new treatments for the disease.

“Anxiety and despair for hundreds of thousands of people with MS has been replaced by hope and reassurance that the disease, while not curable, can now be managed for many patients…,”  wrote Dr. Johnson in his 2010 book on treating MS.

Dr.Johnson served on the Research Programs Advisory Council, the Clinical Advisory Board,and the Database Advisory Panel at the National MS Society which helped establish the Sonya Slifka Longitudinal MS Study, the nation’s most comprehensive data base tracking the real-world impact over time on the lives of people living with the disease.   

“Ken Johnson was both an admired colleague and a friend,” says Dr. Aaron Miller, Chief Medical Officer of the Society. “His work in developing new and better treatments for MS helped to change the lives of people with MS for all time.”

The Society worked closely with Dr. Johnson in other areas as well, playing a key role in funding his pivotal Phase III clinical trial that led to the approval of Copaxone by the FDA as a treatment for MS.

“Dr. Johnson’s commitment to the people living with MS and to vital MS research has gone a long way toward moving us closer to a world free of multiple sclerosis,” advises Dr. Timothy Coetzee, Chief Research Officer for the Society.

The son of a mechanical engineer and a registered nurse, Dr. Johnson was born and raised in Jamestown, NY.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955 from Upsala College in NJ where he met and married a fellow student, Jacquelyn Johnson.   He earned his medical degree in 1959 from Jefferson University School of Medicine in Philadelphia and completed an internship at Buffalo General Hospital in Buffalo, NY.  He began his residency in neurology at the hospital, which was interrupted in 1961 when he left to serve with the Navy at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va.  He completed his residency at the University Hospital in 1965 in Cleveland, and later a neurological residency at Case Western Reserve University.  He was also a fellow in neurovirology, studying how viruses affected the nervous system.

Dr. Johnson held faculty positions at Case Western Reserve before leaving in 1974 to take a position at the University of California, San Francisco.  There he conducted multiple sclerosis research and also worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital.  During the 1970s, Dr. Johnson joined in collaborative research with the late Dr. Hillel Panitch, who shared the belief that MS appeared to be a viral disease. This led them into conducting early clinical trials using interferon, which impacts the ability of viruses to reproduce.  Dr. Johnson came to the University of Maryland in 1981 assuming the role of chairman of the department of neurology. There he was joined by Dr. Panitch in continued research in beta-interferon.

Dr. Johnson is survived by his wife and by three sons, Thomas M. Johnson of Baltimore, Peter B. Johnson of Huntsville, AL, and Douglas C. Johnson of McLean ,VA; a daughter , Diane E. Johnson of Lutherville; a sister, Joanne Erickson of Gales Ferry, CT; and two grandchildren.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. 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. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease. MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

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