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Oxford’s Professor George Ebers Wins 2013 John Dystel Prize for MS Research: Revolutionized our understanding of MS

March 21, 2013

Professor George C. Ebers, MD, of University of Oxford in London, has been chosen by a committee of his peers to receive the National MS Society/American Academy of Neurology’s 2013 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research. Dr. Ebers is being honored for his extensive contributions to understanding MS, shedding new light on factors such as genes that contribute to susceptibility to MS.  The $15,000 prize is being presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in San Diego.

“Professor Ebers’ achievements are unparalleled in the field, and he is still conducting research that is of the utmost relevance to understanding the disease,” said Sreeram Ramagopalan, PhD (University of Oxford), a former student of Dr. Ebers, who nominated him for the prize.

Dr. Ebers’ contributions:

Identifying the importance of genetic factors in MS: Dr. Ebers established the Canadian Collaborative Project on Genetic Susceptibility to MS in 1993, which has collected data on more than 30,000 people with MS and their families. In particular, his studies of twins have shown that susceptibility is partly genetic and partly environmental, indicating that MS is a complex genetic disease. These findings contribute to efforts to end MS through prevention. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 2003;100:12877) 

Dr. Ebers performed an early search for genes that make people susceptible to MS. This showed linkage to the Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex (genes related to the immune system) on chromosome 6. (Lancet 1982;2:88) Additional research has confirmed HLA as a  key factor in genetic susceptibility to MS. More recent work by Dr. Ebers and others has highlighted the complexity of these genes’ association with MS, with some forms conferring increasing disease risk and some forms being protective. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A 2007;104:20896)

Dr. Ebers also has reported key findings on how genes interact with environmental factors. His team showed an association between a rare variation of a gene that controls vitamin D levels and the development of MS in rare families with multiple members who have the disease. This gene variation causes dysfunction that leads to vitamin D deficiency.  Research is increasingly pointing to reduced levels of vitamin D in the blood as one factor that can increase the risk of developing MS. (Annals of Neurology 2011;70:881)

Delineating the natural history of MS: Dr. Ebers has performed detailed studies tracking over time the “natural history” of MS in London, Ontario, Canada,  following more than 1,000 individuals since 1972. Natural history studies provide important knowledge, such as the average number of MS relapses a person may be expected to experience. This helps to appropriately design clinical trials and interpret their results. These studies have been published in a series of important papers on topics such as the predictive value of the early course of MS (Brain 1989;112:1419), and the features of primary progressive MS. (Brain 1999;122:625)

Epidemiology of MS: Dr. Ebers’ studies have forged new paths our understanding of who gets MS, which is the goal of epidemiology. In a study of over 40,000 people from Canada, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, Dr. Ebers showed that the relative risk of developing MS is higher if you are born in May and lower if you are born in November. The finding of a birth pattern suggests the possibility that the origins of the disease date to very early in life. (British Medical Journal 2005;330:120)

Dr. Ebers also has contributed to the study of gender differences in MS. Among other contributions, he documented in 2006 a significant increase in the number of women diagnosed with MS more than men, noting that the female to male ratio in the incidence of MS had increased progressively over the previous 50 years. (Lancet Neurology 2006;5:932)

A series of studies on the relatives of people with MS including spouses, half-siblings, adoptees, and step-siblings suggested the idea that increases in the risk for developing MS come less from the familial environment than from factors operating at a general population level, such as climate and/or diet. These studies led to examination of role of Vitamin D in MS risk and the potential of vitamin D supplementation for MS patients and their families. (Lancet Neurology 2008;7:268)

Sharing knowledge: Ebers has published extensively in the medical literature, with more than 300 publications in peer reviewed journals, three books, 25 book chapters, and multiple editorials. He is listed in A & C Black's Who's Who (2012). Professor Ebers’ career as a clinician-researcher was celebrated in June 2012 at a Festschrift at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, where researchers and clinicians from around the world met to pay tribute to his life's work.

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 Honorary Life National Board of Directors 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), and Richard Ransohoff (2012). Read more about other Dystel Prize winners.

Biography: George Cornell Ebers, MD, is Action Research Professor of Clinical Neurology and Adjunct Professor, in the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences at the University of Oxford. Dr. Ebers received his medical degree from the University of Toronto and completed an internship at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He practiced briefly in family medicine, and then completed a residency in Neurology at Cornell Medical Center in New York, ending his term there as Chief Resident and Instructor in Neurology. Before moving to Oxford in 1999, Dr. Ebers practiced at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, where he was a professor in the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences, with cross-appointments in the Departments of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario. Among the many awards given to Ebers are the Wainright Scholarship; JB Colling Prize in Medicine; Recipient Research Career Development Award; MS Society of Canada Ministry of Health Career Scientist Award; Pringle Medal; and the University of Western Ontario Faculty of Medicine Award of Excellence.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. Currently there is no cure. Symptoms vary from person to person and may include disabling fatigue, mobility challenges, cognitive changes, and vision issues. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to minimize disability. Significant progress is being made to achieve a world free of MS.


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