- Honored for applying Big Data to understand the origins of multiple sclerosis
Sergio E. Baranzini, PhD, a geneticist, neuroimmunologist and data scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, is the winner of this year’s Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research. Professor Baranzini is being recognized for his pioneering efforts to integrate vast pools of information (“Big Data”) to understand complex mechanisms that cause MS and to develop more precise approaches to stop the disease and end it by prevention.
Prof. Baranzini’s work informs Pathways to MS Cures
and he joins a distinguished group of previous recipients
who are driving progress in high priority research questions.
Prof. Baranzini is a Distinguished Professor and holds the Heidrich Friends and Family endowed chair in Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He is also a member of the Graduate Program in Bioinformatics, the Institute for Human Genetics, the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute, ImmunoX, and the Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine.
“Professor Baranzini has the vision and creativity to apply the power of global collaborations and big data to tackle complex questions surrounding multiple sclerosis,” said Bruce Bebo, Ph.D., Executive Vice President of Research Programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which administers the award. “He is truly a trailblazer whose important contributions are driving progress in understanding multiple sclerosis and translating them to advance pathways to MS cures.”
Prof. Baranzini is part of a new generation of scientists in the field of MS who are integrating massive amounts of data being generated by advanced technologies and gaining deeper understanding of factors that are driving the disease. Key to these endeavors are global collaborations. Among his many contributions:
- Influences of the gut microbiome: Prof. Baranzini established the international MS microbiome study (iMSMS), a consortium of investigators in the field of MS and microbiome to discover the role that gut bacteria play in the triggering, progression, and response to treatment for people with MS. They have enrolled more than 2,000 participants, making it the largest microbiome study in MS and in any other autoimmune condition. Through the analysis of this wealth of data, they are starting to see emerging patterns of specific bacteria that may trigger or perpetuate disease, as well as bacteria with potential beneficial properties.
Impact: This offers hope for new approaches such as probiotics or diet to eliminate or enhance key species to improve the course of MS.
- Seeking patterns in massive data: Another important collaborative project is Baranzini’s decade-long development of SPOKE, a massive knowledge graph database that aims at integrating the entire body of biomedical information established over the past five decades of research and medical practice. In one application, SPOKE can be integrated with medical records and harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to find patterns that could detect potential signs of MS years before clinical diagnosis.
Impact: These patterns can lead to the development of new therapies and the implementation of precision medicine and possibly strategies for the prevention of MS.
- Understanding MS genes: Profs. Baranzini and Stephen Sawcer (Cambridge University) recently broke new ground by leading the work of the long-standing International MS Genetics Consortium. The team published a landmark paper in 2023 on the largest study ever to understand the genetic basis of MS progression. This study of more than 20,000 people with MS identified gene variants linked to faster MS progression. The study also confirmed the role of tobacco smoke in worsening MS, and educational attainment to less severe outcomes.
Impact: The study provides new clues to developing therapies to stop MS and more evidence for actions to take that may reduce disease progression.
“I am deeply honored by this distinction, a testament to the collective achievements of numerous individuals over many years of dedicated work,” commented Prof. Baranzini. “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.’ 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. 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.”
Prof. Baranzini earned his degrees in clinical biochemistry and PhD in human molecular genetics from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He then moved to UCSF to specialize in the analysis of complex hereditary diseases and focused on multiple sclerosis. He completed postdoctoral research in immunology and was involved with the genome-wide analysis to identify MS susceptibility genes. He added to this experience training in computer programming and bioinformatics (UC Berkeley Extension) and mathematical modeling and complexity theory (Santa Fe Institute and New England Complex Systems Institute). His early faculty position was supported by a prestigious Harry Weaver Scholar Award from the National MS Society. Baranzini has published his research on MS in top-tier journals like Science
and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA
. He serves on editorial boards for several journals and has been a mentor to many young scientists.
About the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research:
The Barancik Prize
seeks to recognize and encourage exceptional innovation and originality in scientific research relevant to multiple sclerosis, with emphasis on impact and potential of the research to lead to pathways for the treatment and cure for MS, and scientific accomplishments that merit recognition as a future leader in MS research. The international prize is administered through the National MS Society and made possible by the generosity of the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation.