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Trainees in MS Research and Clinical Care Connect at the 2013 Tykeson Fellows Conference

December 2, 2013

The 4th Tykeson Fellows Conference on MS brought nearly 100 young National MS Society and MS International Federation research and clinical fellows together with senior scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts, as well as interact with the attendees of the Society’s National Leadership Conference. The meetings were held in early November in Denver, Colorado.

The fellows conference was convened by the Society and launched by a generous contribution from Mr. Donald Tykeson, active volunteer and Honorary Life Director of the Society’s National Board of Directors. “You are the future of MS research,” said Cyndi Zagieboylo, CEO of the National MS Society, in her opening remarks. “Your commitment and leadership give real hope to people with MS.”

In an opening session, fellows enjoyed career advice from senior scientists who are experts in MS research, like Jeffrey Bennett, MD, PhD (University of Colorado, Denver). “You don’t have to solve the world’s problems in one experiment,” he said. “Answer one important question – that will give you a good start.”

The conference featured speaker presentations from senior scientists and  fellows, and 60 posters in a session that was open to people attending the National Leadership Conference. Researchers reported on, among other topics, seeking new strategies to repair MS damage, stop MS progression, and improve the daily life of people with MS. There were also sessions on writing grants and career development to help fellows be competitive in obtaining faculty positions and research funding.


Watching myelin grow: Wendy Macklin, PhD (University of Colorado, Denver), delivered the Patricia O’Looney Memorial Lecture . Dr. Macklin discussed the ideal nature of the zebrafish model for studying myelin repair, particularly for screening small molecules that might stimulate oligodendrocytes (myelin-making cells) to proliferate and repair myelin. “You can see myelin develop in seven days in this model,” said Dr. Macklin. “Zebrafish are transparent, so you can instantly see toxicity. You also can see the impact of the small molecule – is it causing cell death or cell proliferation?”

Natural repair: Bruce Trapp, MD (Cleveland Clinic) talked about the capacity of the brain to repair itself, particularly in the cortex (outermost layer). His team studied brain tissue samples from 19 people with MS and found that myelin repair within areas of damage in the cortex was frequent. “It was 74%, even in two patients who were 77 years old,” said Dr. Trapp. “This leaves no doubt in my mind that the adult human brain makes great effort to repair itself.”

New repair target: Postdoctoral fellow Javier Palazuelos, PhD (State University of New York, Stony Brook) presented on signals from an immune messenger protein – called “TGF beta” – that seem to influence the maturation of myelin-making cells. This maturation is “crucial for myelin repair,” he noted. Deleting TGF beta in rodent models stopped myelin formation and repair, while activating TGF beta signaling enhanced myelin repair and reduced symptoms. These studies may provide a new therapeutic strategy for MS repair.


Protecting the brain: Postdoctoral fellow Sharon Way, PhD (University of Chicago) won the Best Platform Presentation award for her talk about a strategy for protecting myelin-making cells from damage in MS. The team is seeking compounds that will enhance these cells’ “integrated stress response.”  This protective mechanism helps cells to deal with potentially harmful stressors, and cells may be able to mount it against the immune attack in MS. “Successfully protecting oligodendrocytes is desirable for any approach to stopping MS progression,” said Dr. Way.

Immune attack factor: Sergio Baranzini, PhD (University of California, San Francisco) – a Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar – discussed a gene that may participate in reducing immune attacks in MS, called TOB1. “We have shown that TOB1 activity is reduced in people who are at risk for MS progression,” he said. Deleting this gene in mice and then inducing MS-like disease brings worsening disease. “We think this gene may be a biomarker for disease activity and progression,” said Dr. Baranzini.

Building a better mouse: David Baker, PhD (Barts & the London School of Medicine and Dentistry) discussed progress and pitfalls in animal models of MS, specifically, progressive MS. “MS is a uniquely human disease,” he said, “But aspects of MS can be modeled in animal models.” Dr. Baker described a mouse model in which damage to the optic nerve can be measured in the live mouse. “The optic nerve is the most accessible part of the central nervous system.” This model may provide a novel opportunity for tracking progression and treatments trying to stop MS progression.


Treating memory problems: John DeLuca, PhD (Kessler Foundation Research Center, West Orange, NJ) discussed the ever increasing research on cognitive function and MS. “Twenty-five years ago, few people thought that cognition was a significant problem in MS,” he said. “We’ve come a long way for professionals as well as patients to understand that this is a real problem.” One technique his team has studied is spacing. “People who read a news article three times, 30 minutes apart, had significantly better recall than those who read it three times in a row,” he said. Dr. DeLuca emphasized the need for more studies in this area and for integrating this knowledge into clinical practice. “It’s time to treat cognitive impairment in MS,” he said.

Vitamin D Trial: Postdoctoral fellow Pavan Bhargava, MD (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) reported on an ongoing clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation as an add-on therapy to glatiramer acetate in people with relapsing-remitting MS, which is being funded by the Society. Investigators expect to have enrolled all 172 people in the study by December 2013, and no serious adverse events have occurred to date.

Employment: Meghan Beier, PhD (University of Washington, Seattle) – a fellow in the Society’s Mentor-Based Postdoctoral Fellowship in Rehabilitation Research – presented the results of a survey to determine what psychosocial factors influenced employment in 407 people with MS. Her team found that “perceived stress” was a significant factor in maintaining employment. Dr. Beier also participated in a panel discussion for the Society’s National Conference and related how she has created an “app” of a neuropsychological assessment to make it accessible to physicians and patients anywhere.

Restoring balance: Jeffrey Hebert, PhD, PT (University of Colorado, Denver) talked about the role of sensory integration (how the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses). “This process is impaired in people with MS,” said Dr. Hebert. His team found that a program of balance and eye-movement exercises improved balance, reduced fatigue, and reduced dizziness or disequilibrium in 38 people with MS. He is now funded by the Society to study it further in 88 people. “This research could help people with MS overcome a barrier to physical activity,” he said.

Fellows left the conference with new ideas, inspiration and collaborators. Postdoctoral fellow Tracy Yuen, PhD (University of California) noted, “It was an incredible experience to meet and talk with other researchers in the MS field, as well as to speak with MS patients whom our research will hopefully be able to help someday. I returned to San Francisco extra excited and motivated to continue my research career!”

Read more about this conference in the MS Connection Blog.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. 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. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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