- The Seventh Tykeson Fellows Conference brought more than 90 young research and clinical trainees of the National MS Society to learn about each other’s latest research efforts and to build lasting collaborations.
- The conference featured presentations from established scientists and fellows reporting on promising research to drive breakthroughs that will stop MS, restore function and end MS forever. It also included career advice to help fellows cement their commitment to MS and continue to engage with the Society.
- Expanding the MS research workforce is an important aspect of the Society’s Strategic Plan.
The Seventh Tykeson Fellows Conference brought more than 90 research and clinical trainees of the National MS Society together with established scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts. Fellows also interacted with attendees of the Society’s Leadership Conference. The meetings were held in mid-November in Atlanta, Georgia.
The fellows conference was convened by the Society and launched by a generous contribution from the late Mr. Donald Tykeson, who was an active volunteer and Honorary Life Director of the Society’s National Board of Directors. As someone who lived with MS for 60 years, Mr. Tykeson was a generous and enthusiastic supporter of MS research.
“We believe that tomorrow’s breakthroughs will come from today’s emerging scientists,” said Cyndi Zagieboylo, President and CEO of the National MS Society, in welcoming remarks. “We care about your careers, and helping you to forge an unencumbered path in research and clinical care.”
Stopping Nerve Damage
Katerina Akassoglou, PhD, a leading researcher at the Gladstone Institutes and the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) delivered The Patricia A. O’Looney Memorial Lecture, named in memory of a former Vice President of Biomedical Research at the Society.
Dr. Akassoglou’s team has conducted a series of cutting-edge studies that could lead to a novel solution for stopping MS progression. “We tried to find what happens really early on in mouse models of MS,” she explained. “One of the first steps is the opening of the blood brain barrier,” she said, referring to the system of blood vessels that controls what molecules can enter the brain from the bloodstream.
This research has uncovered the role of a blood-clotting protein called fibrin, which “leaks” from the damaged blood-brain barrier and gets deposited in MS brain lesions. “Fibrin serves as a bloody brake on repair, and a gas pedal for inflammation,” said Dr. Akassoglou. Using an antibody that inhibits fibrin, her team has been able to reduce neurological symptoms in MS lab models without affecting clotting time.
“My lab started with one grant from the National MS Society that was leveraged into many over the years,” she said. “The Society takes a huge risk on us and by doing so creates new directions for research in MS.”
Driving MS Breakthroughs
Fellows shared their results in platform talks and at at poster sessions, enabling one-on-one conversations with colleagues and participants of the Leadership Conference.. They reported on promising research to drive breakthroughs that will stop MS, restore function and end MS forever. Here are just a few summaries of these presentations.
African American Women with MS:
Jagriti ‘Jackie’ Bhattarai, PhD, Assistant Professor (Johns Hopkins University) – trained through a Mentor-Based Postdoctoral Fellowship in Rehabilitation Research awarded to mentor Meghan Beier, PhD – reported on her team’s work to examine race- and income-based differences in depression and anxiety among 48 women of different races and ethnicities who have MS. Depression was higher in African American women regardless of income, and anxiety was higher in African American women with the lowest income. “We need to place more clinical and research focus on mood assessment in African American women with MS,” concluded Dr. Bhattarai. “We need to do this if we want to make effective change happen.”
T cells – friend or foe?
Chao Wang, PhD (Brigham and Women’s Hospital) discussed her team’s work in identifying a pathway by which immune T cells switch from cells that drive inflammation to those that protect the nervous system from damage. “By changing a single [molecule] we can change the cell type,” she said. The small molecule they identified is involved in the chemical breakdown of food. Dr. Wang is funded by the Society’s five-year Career Transition Fellowship, which begins with two years of advanced training and research funding to facilitate the transition to an independent faculty position. She was recently promoted to an assistant professor and will continue this work. “We want to take this to an MS model to see if we can affect the pathway using an approved drug,” she said.
Picturing cognitive problems:
Postdoctoral fellow Korhan Buyukturkoglu, PhD (Columbia University) analyzed different types of MRI brain images collected from 182 people with MS, some of whom had cognitive impairment. His team is using computer-based methods called machine learning and pattern classification to combine and analyze large amounts of data to draw a comprehensive picture of what cognitive impairment in MS looks like on brain scans. Their results so far show that lesions in the cerebellum (an area in the back of the brain) and a change in connectivity between two other brain areas are both indicators of cognitive problems.
Activating myelin repair:
Career transition fellow Lu Sun, PhD (Stanford University) and colleagues focus on how myelin that has been damaged by MS may be repaired. They have identified a natural molecule in the brain – called TFEB – that seems to influence immature myelin-making cells (oligodendrocytes). This team has studied models where TFEB is deleted to determine its effects on myelin repair. “The loss of TFEB increases the numbers of immature oligodendrocytes across diverse brain regions,” he said. The team interprets their findings to mean that TFEB plays a critical role in the location and timing of myelin formation.” Thanks to the support of this fellowship, Dr. Sun has transitioned to a faculty position and started his own research laboratory focusing on how myelin formation is established and disrupted.
Improving walking in older people with MS:
Postdoctoral fellow Jessica Baird, PhD (University of Alabama at Birmingham) – a postdoctoral fellow trained through a Mentor-Based Postdoctoral Fellowship in Rehabilitation Research awarded to mentor Rob Motl, PhD – presented research on physical activity and walking. “It’s a cycle: physical inactivity leads to deconditioning, and then walking impairment, in people with MS,” she said. Dr. Baird’s team found that decreases in moderate to vigorous physical activity were associated with walking impairment specifically in people with MS between the ages of 60 and 79. “Impaired walking is one of most common consequences of MS and has a large and meaningful impact,” she said. Overcoming this decrease in physical activity may succeed in improving walking in this population, now the fastest growing age group living with MS.
Elizabeth Silbermann, MD (Oregon Health & Science University) reported on her team’s effort to update a 2001 survey of people with MS in the northwest regarding their use of complementary and alternative medicine. Current use of these treatments increased from 68% to 93% in the 2019 survey, which was completed by 1,101 people. “There was a six-fold increase in those talking to neurologists about taking alternative treatments,” reported Dr. Silbermann. “But participants said their physicians felt like they did not have sufficient training to answer questions about them.” This points to the need for additional professional training related to complementary therapies. Read more about complementary therapies and MS
Dr. Silbermann is funded by a Sylvia Lawry Physician Fellowship, which trains young researchers in conducting clinical trials.
The conference is a great opportunity for established scientists to answer questions and provide direction to young fellows. Each scientific session began with a talk from one of these scientists and included: 1) Kassandra Munger, ScD (Harvard University), who discussed epidemiology; 2) Sergio Baranzini, PhD (UCSF), who presented the latest on genetics and the microbiome; 3) Shiv Saidha, MBBCh, MD, MRCPI (Johns Hopkins University), who talked about imaging technology; 4) Stephen Fancy, DVM, PhD (UCSF), speaking on myelin repair/neuroprotection; 5) and Meghan Beier, MD (Johns Hopkins University), who presented the latest on wellness and MS.
The conference also included breakouts where fellows could ask specific career-related questions. “Prepare – as a postdoc, fellow, faculty member – whether you are getting a progress report ready for the Society or presenting your research at a meeting,” noted session leader Caroline Whitacre, PhD, former Senior Vice President for Research at The Ohio State University and Chair of the Society’s Research Programs Advisory Committee. “You always leave an impression. You want to be the best prepared.”
Fellows showed their appreciation for the advice, and the conference. “The support you are giving us is so important so that we can pursue our passion of conducting MS research,” said Adil Harroud, MD (UCSF), a National MS Society and American Brain Foundation MS Clinician-Scientist Awardee (cofunded by the MS Society of Canada).
Scientific Planning Committee
The planning commmittee for the conference included several fellows:
Kirsten Anderson (UCSF)
Kristen Krysko (UCSF)
Naresha Saligramma (Stanford University)
Omar Al Louzi (National Institutes of Health)
Jagriti ‘Jackie’ Bhattarai (Johns Hopkins University)
Kirsten Evonuk (Cleveland Clinic)