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Twenty Novel Research Projects Focus on Novel Strategies to Stop MS Progression, Reduce Emotional Distress and More

November 2, 2018

  • The National MS Society has just committed funding for 20 high-risk pilot research grants to quickly test novel ideas. Additional pilot studies will be funded throughout the year as part of a comprehensive research program that is supporting over 320 new and ongoing research and training projects in 2018 alone.
  • These grants are designed to quickly answer novel questions, including: Can a naturally occurring molecule similar to cannabis stop the immune attack? Does reduced muscle blood flow affect exercise capacity in people with MS? Can we improve emotional regulation in MS?
  • 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 established Research Priorities
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 recent survey of previous Society pilot grant recipients indicated that 90% agreed the funding was impactful to their research program.
The National MS Society has just committed more than $1,000,000 to fund 20 high-risk pilot grants to quickly answer novel questions. Additional pilot studies will be funded throughout the year as part of a comprehensive research program that is supporting over 320 new and ongoing research and training projects in 2018 alone.
Here are summaries of a few of the new pilot projects to which the Society has made commitments:
  • Stopping the immune attack: Aditi Das, PhD (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and colleagues have recently identified certain forms of endocannabinoids, molecules that are produced naturally by the body and act in a similar fashion to plant-derived cannabis. They have shown that these molecules can inhibit production of inflammatory molecules by immune cells of the brain. Now, they are testing these endocannabinoids in MS-like disease in mice. They also are using state-of-the-art biochemical techniques to determine if the levels of these newly discovered endocannabinoids change in the spinal fluid of people with MS during remission and relapse. This project may yield a novel strategy for stopping the immune attack in MS.
  • Novel strategies for stopping progression:  Hao Zhu, PhD (University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City) is studying two therapies that have undergone preliminary testing in people with MS: high dose biotin (vitamin B) therapy and pioglitazone (a drug for diabetes). During the progression of MS, there is a greater demand for energy in brain cells, which is compounded by malfunction of mitochondria, the tiny batteries in cells that produce energy. This team is exploring how high-dose biotin and pioglitazone may improve mitochondrial function and energy production in human nerve cells and a mouse model of progressive MS. This will contribute to understanding how they impact mitochondrial function and their potential for slowing or stopping MS progression.
  • Sex differences in early stage MS: Women are 2-3 times more likely to develop MS compared to men, but MS progression (thought to be due to damage and loss of nerve cells or "neurodegeneration") appears to be worse in men. Stefan Gold, PhD (Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany) is bringing together expertise in the study of sex differences and cutting-edge technologies to study mechanisms of nerve cell damage over time using high resolution imaging of the brain, optic nerve, and spinal cord. They are analyzing data from 50 men and 50 women with MS, followed for 3 years starting with the first clinical symptoms, to get a very clear picture of how MS-related nerve damage develops over time and whether this differs between men and women with MS. This project should contribute to learning more about what drives MS progression and point to novel treatment targets.
  • Increasing exercise capacity: Frank Dinenno, PhD (Colorado State University, Fort Collins) is studying whether a reduced ability to send blood and oxygen to an exercising muscle is a potential cause of lower exercise capacity in people with MS. This team will measure muscle blood flow during knee-extensor exercise in 22 people with MS and 11 healthy controls using Doppler ultrasound at the femoral artery, and draw blood at rest and during exercise to measure blood markers that could affect muscle blood flow. If muscle blood flow is impaired in people with MS, effective treatments would increase exercise capacity, reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and increase functional ability.
  • Reducing Emotional Distress: Emotional distress is a common symptom experienced by individuals with MS, as well as their carepartners. One specific type of cognitive-behavioral approach focuses on improving skills to improve emotion regulation, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve relationships with others. Abbey Hughes, PhD (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) is testing the efficacy of a unique group-based intervention (12 weekly therapy and skills training sessions) to improve emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. These data will provide a foundation for conducting a larger definitive clinical trial.
Recent Pilot Project Results --
Dancing symptoms away: Early results of a novel approach to rehabilitation like the following illustrates how the Society’s pilot research program encourages and drives further research. Citlali LopezOrtiz, PhD (University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign, Urbana) examined whether it was feasible to safely improve balance, agility, and smoothness of movement during walking in eight people with MS using a classical ballet-based intervention. Participants participated twice per week in a one-hour dance class for 16 weeks, or in a supervised stretching program as a comparison group. Dr. Lopez-Ortiz reported the results in PLOS ONE (Published: October 18, 2018, available via open access) showing that the program was well tolerated and improved balance and movement. The team is following up with another study in which they are adding imaging to determine whether dance improves underlying brain function. Read more about this research
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. 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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