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Noted Mayo Clinic Neurologist and Researcher Dr. Brian Weinshenker Wins 2011 John Dystel Prize for MS Research

April 12, 2011

Professor Brian G. Weinshenker, MD, has been chosen by a committee of his peers to receive the National MS Society/American Academy of Neurology’s 2011 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research. Dr. Weinshenker (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN) is being honored for groundbreaking findings relating to the diagnosis and treatment of MS. The $15,000 prize is being presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Honolulu.

“Dr. Weinshenker’s discoveries have had enormous impact on contemporary MS clinical practice,” said Dean Wingerchuk, MD (Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, AZ), who nominated Dr. Weinshenker to receive the Dystel Prize.

Dr. Weinshenker’s contributions: Dr. Weinshenker made some of his earliest contributions to the field as the first author of a series of landmark papers describing the natural history of MS. Together with colleagues at the University of Western Ontario led by George Ebers, MD, he analyzed a group of 1,099 people with MS who had been evaluated between 1972 and 1984 in the London, Ontario MS Clinic. The team analyzed the impact of factors determined early in the disease course on long term MS disability, and their findings still inform the design of MS studies. (Brain 1989;112:133-46; Brain 1989;112:1419-28; Brain 1991;114:1045-56; Brain 1991;114:1057-67)

Dr. Weinshenker revolutionized the treatment of severe attacks of MS with a study of plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis, or plasma exchange, is a process in which whole blood is withdrawn from an individual; the liquid portion or plasma is removed from the blood and replaced; and the blood, with all its red and white blood cells, is transfused back into the person with a plasma substitute. This process is a successful method for treating some autoimmune diseases because it removes the circulating antibodies that are thought to be active in these diseases. Because MS may involve an autoimmune process and because damaging factors have been found in plasma from people with MS, plasmapheresis has been tried as a treatment for MS. Dr. Weinshenker carefully designed a novel study, including a control group that received a sham procedure. More than 40% of those in the plasmapheresis group had marked improvement in symptoms, compared with 5% in the control group. (Annals of Neurology 1999;46:878-86) Because of these findings, plasmapheresis guidelines distributed by the American Academy of Neurology were revised to include its use as a back-up therapy for exacerbations of MS and other inflammatory demyelinating syndromes that are unresponsive to corticosteroids.

Dr. Weinshenker, with Dr. Wingerchuk, defined diagnostic criteria that distinguish an uncommon MS-like disorder, neuromyelitis optica (NMO, also known as Devic’s syndrome), from typical MS. NMO was until recently regarded as a severe form of MS. With colleague Vanda Lennon, MD, PhD, and others, he broke new ground with the discovery of a specific antibody in the blood of individuals with NMO that is unique to this disorder. (The Lancet 2004;364:2106-12) The antibody attaches to a protein, called aquaporin-4, that regulates the flow of water in brain cells known as astrocytes and leads to a cascade of destructive inflammation. Now, a positive result on a simple blood test can help a neurologist to identify people at risk for NMO early in the course of the disease, allowing appropriate treatment to be initiated early and hopefully reduce the damage caused by this disease.

Dr. Weinshenker also has contributed to our understanding of genes that make people susceptible to MS, as well as gender differences – in some cases, simultaneously. With Orhun Kantarci, MD, and other members of his team, he found that men less commonly have genetic variants that are associated with high levels of interferon gamma (a powerful immune messenger chemical linked to immune attacks in MS) production than women. This observation may partially explain why fewer men have MS than women. (Genes and Immunity 2005;6:153-61, Archives of Neurology 2008;65:349-357)

Sharing knowledge: Dr. Weinshenker has played key roles in the MS movement.. He has received multiple research grants from the Society to support his cutting-edge research, and has mentored a number of trainees including several Society-funded postdoctoral fellows. Dr. Weinshenker also serves as a member of the Executive Committee of the National MS Society’s National Clinical Advisory Board, the Society/ECTRIMS International Advisory Committee on Clinical Trials of New Drugs in MS, and has served on the Medical Advisory Board of the MS Society of Canada. He was a member of the Task Force on Diagnostic Criteria for Multiple Sclerosis in 2000, 2005 and 2010, which produced the McDonald Criteria that sped diagnosis and are at the heart of virtually all clinical trials, and also served on the Society’s task forces on Clinical Rating Scales for MS, the Differential Diagnosis of MS, and the Epidemiology of MS. Dr. Weinshenker is a noted speaker and educator, and has received numerous invitations for visiting professorships worldwide.

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 Honorary Life National Board of Directors member the late 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), and David Hafler (2010). Read more about other Dystel Prize winners.

Biography: Brian G. Weinshenker is Professor of Neurology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Consultant in Neurology at the Mayo Clinic. He also is a consultant in the Department of Medical Genetics at the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Weinshenker earned his medical degree at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Manitoba, and a residency in Neurology at the University of Minnesota. He then completed a fellowship in Neuroimmunology at the University of Western Ontario, London, after which he joined the faculty of the University of Ottawa in 1988. He joined the faculty at the Mayo Clinic in 1992.

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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