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New High-Risk Pilot Projects Explore Probiotics, Virtual Reality, Repairing MS Damage, And Other Novel Solutions For People Affected By MS

April 12, 2019

SUMMARY
  • The National MS Society has just committed funding for 14 high-risk pilot research grants to quickly test novel ideas, as part of a $24.4-million commitment to 64 new MS research and training projects focused on stopping MS, restoring what’s been lost, and ending MS forever. Additional research studies will be funded throughout the year as part of a comprehensive research program that will support 340 new and ongoing research projects in 2019 alone.
  • Pilot grants are designed to quickly answer novel questions for people affected by MS, including: Can cholesterol-like molecules enhance myelin repair and restore function? Can we stop MS in its tracks by altering the gut microbiome? Can understanding more about the experience of MS in Zambia help to end the disease? Download a list of new pilot projects
  • The Pilot Research Grants program is one way that the Society maintains a diverse research portfolio that includes short- and long-term investments, balances risks and rewards, and funds research globally, in line with our Research Priorities and commitment to supporting pathways to a cure for MS.
DETAILS
The National MS Society has just committed more than $750,000 to fund 14 high-risk pilot grants to quickly answer novel questions, as part of a $24.4-million commitment to 64 new research and training projects focused on stopping MS, restoring what’s been lost, and ending MS forever. Additional pilot studies will be funded throughout the year as part of a comprehensive research program that will support 340 new and ongoing research projects in 2019 alone.

Before investigators can get funding to test a cutting-edge research idea, they need to generate the first bit of data to prove their ideas are worth pursuing. Pilot grants allow researchers to gather preliminary data so they can apply for longer-term funding – or put the idea to rest. The grant provides one year of funding. This program is one way that the Society maintains a diverse research portfolio that includes short- and long-term investments, balances risks and rewards, and funds research globally. A survey of previous Society pilot grant recipients indicated that 90% agreed the funding was impactful to their research program.
Here are summaries of a few of the new pilot projects to which the Society has made commitments:
  • Clues to repairing myelin: MS symptoms result from damage to brain and spinal cord tissues, including the loss of myelin that wraps around and supports nerve cells. Drew Adams, PhD (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland) and his team recently reported that myelin repair can be promoted by cholesterol-like molecules. Now they are exploring how these molecules act to enhance myelin repair, by using advanced technology to obtain data on thousands of proteins that may interact with these molecules. They hope to uncover new targets for the development of novel therapeutics that promote myelin repair to improve function in people with MS.
  • Prebiotics vs. Probiotics for MS: Excess inflammation associated with MS disease activity in the brain and spinal cord may in part be due to changes in the gut microbiome – millions of bacteria that live in the intestines. Rebecca Straus Farber, MD (Columbia University, New York) is leading an effort to evaluate the potentially beneficial effect of two strategies in people with MS: prebiotics (high fiber foods that act as food for bacteria) and probiotics (live microorganisms that can maintain or improve gut bacterial composition). These strategies are being compared in terms of their effects on gut bacteria content, immune system impacts, and quality of life. Results of the study, if confirmed by larger trials, could potentially identify a  dietary supplement that could reduce disease activity and symptoms.
  • Virtual reality to reduce pain: Pain is one of the most common symptoms in MS and often leads to disability and reduced quality of life. Leigh Charvet, PhD (New York University Langone Medical Center) and colleagues are testing whether virtual reality devices can reduce pain. Virtual reality refers to the experience of wearing a headset that allows the user to view a video or interactive space in 360° that moves as the user moves. Recently, programmers have created guided experiences that are specifically designed to distract users from pain. This small clinical trial involving people with MS who have pain will determine if this new technique has potential to reduce this troubling symptom of MS.
  • Improving balance: Balance problems are a commonly experienced by people with MS, and may lead to a higher risk of falling during everyday activities. Richard Van Emmerik, PhD (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and colleagues are testing two methods of addressing balance: tai chi (deep breathing, relaxation, and slow, gentle movements) and mindfulness meditation training (mental training that involves focusing your mind on your experiences in the present moment). Both are considered safe and can be practiced for a lifetime. This team is comparing them in an 8-week study to determine which might lead to greater improvements in physical balance and balance confidence in people with MS, and whether benefits remain after a period of not practicing.
  • MS in Zambia: Studying people with MS from different ethnic backgrounds could lead to important discoveries about genetic and environmental factors that play a part in causing MS or how quickly it progresses. Deanna Saylor, MD (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore) and colleagues are enrolling people with MS in Zambia, Africa, in a national registry where the Hopkins team will keep track of their disease, including relapses, MRI findings, laboratory results, and treatments. They also are using this study as an opportunity to improve MS care: In Zambia there are four neurologists who practice in one hospital. During this study, these neurologists will train other physicians in Zambia to recognize the signs and symptoms of MS. This study will not only improve the diagnosis of MS in Zambia, but may also lead to important discoveries about MS.
 
Pilot Project Results –
How infections may cause relapses: Upper respiratory infections brought on by viruses that cause the flu or flu the common cold have been linked to MS relapses. Andrew Steelman, PhD (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and colleagues were funded by a pilot award to use state-of-the-art techniques to determine how upper respiratory infection modifies the activity of brain cells. Their results showed increases in specific brain cells and molecules in mice with infection (read more about these findings here). These findings helped Dr. Steelman to earn a new National MS Society-supported research grant, and with this new funding, his team is using powerful tools to explore biological pathways in the brain that are impacted by infections. The team will also test whether an antiviral medication can decrease relapses in mice with MS-like disease. If these studies are successful, then clinical trials could be initiated to determine whether this approach would stop or reduce relapses in people with MS.
 
Read More:
Download a list of new pilot projects
Learn more about research funded by the National MS Society
 

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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