- The Fifth Tykeson Fellows Conference brought nearly 100 young National MS Society, MS International Federation, and MS Society of Canada research and clinical fellows together with senior scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts.
- Attendees also interacted with the attendees of the Society’s National Leadership Conference.
- The Tykeson Conference helps drive one of the Society’s key Strategic Plan goals of expanding investments and worldwide collaboration to accelerate research, and in particular expanding the scientific workforce focused on MS. The conference featured speaker presentations from senior scientists and fellows, and 66 posters displayed during a session that was open to people attending the National Leadership Conference.
- Researchers reported on how they are accelerating research to repair MS damage, stop MS progression, and improve the daily life of people with MS.
The Fifth Tykeson Fellows Conference brought nearly 100 young National MS Society, MS International Federation, and MS Society of Canada research and clinical fellows together with senior scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts. Attendees also interacted with attendees of the Society’s National Leadership Conference. The meetings were held in early November in Fort Worth, Texas.
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. As someone who has lived with MS for over 50 years, Mr. Tykeson has always been a strong supporter of MS research. The Tykeson Conference helps drive one of the Society’s key Strategic Plan goals of expanding investments and worldwide collaboration to accelerate research, and in particular expanding the scientific workforce focused on MS.
“It’s energizing to be with you and hear your excitement for the work you are doing to solve MS,” said Cyndi Zagieboylo, President and CEO of the National MS Society, in welcoming remarks. “You are part of an integrated movement to change the world for people living with MS. Lives are changing because you focused on this work!”
Elissa J. Levy (EJ), founder and president of MS Hope for a Cure, who is living with MS, noted how inspiring it was to meet and talk with research fellows. “You are waking up every morning and going to work every day to try to make my life better,” she said.
Reaching For the “Gadzooks!” Moment
Fellows were treated to advice keynote lecture from Stephen Hauser, MD (University of California, San Francisco), who delivered The Patricia A. O’Looney Memorial Lecture, named in memory of a former Vice President of Biomedical Research at the Society.
He spoke about research and care in the days before there was MRI or any disease-modifying therapies, when diagnosis of MS often involved immersing people in hot water to see if it made them weak, reminding the audience of how far we’ve come thanks to research. Dr. Hauser also spoke of those pivotal moments that make a career in research worthwhile. “The B cell therapy story led to several ‘gadzooks’ moments for me,” he said, referring to the development of rituximab, a first-generation monoclonal antibody therapy that depletes immune “B cells,” which inspired the development of Ocrelizumab
“When we did the first study of rituximab [in relapsing MS], our goal was to see a tiny flicker of benefit that would validate our hypothesis,” he said. At that time, most investigators did not think B cells were involved in the misdirected immune activity in MS. “When we unblinded the study, we saw the best possible results, something that could be useful for our patients!”
Accelerating Research Breakthroughs
The conference featured speaker presentations from senior scientists and fellows.
Researchers reported on efforts to accelerate research to repair MS damage, stop MS progression, and improve the daily life of people with MS:
Watching repair in action:
Fellow Jennifer Orthmann-Murphy, MD, PhD (The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) wowed the audience with images of a model her team has developed to observe myelin-making cells in action. The team used time-lapse imaging to view myelin damage in mice, and found that they could observe the loss of myelin-making cells called oligodendrocytes, and then how new ones formed new myelin. “We can use this model to determine when to intervene and test new therapies targeting myelin repair,” she said. (Dr. Orthman-Murphy earned the conference award for top platform presentation.)
Zoning in on zebrafish:
Postdoctoral fellow Marnie Preston, PhD (University of Colorado) talked about her team’s efforts to speed up the discovery of new therapies using small fish called zebrafish to screen compounds for myelin repair potential. Zebrafish reproduce quickly, have hundreds of offspring, and are literally ‘see-through.’ “You can see myelin formation in the first weeks of life.” The team, led by her mentor Wendy Macklin, PhD, is identifying molecules that spur on the genes that instruct myelin formation for clues to boosting repair.
A new look at progenitors:
Senior scientist Dwight Bergles, PhD (Johns Hopkins University) shed new light on the immature cells, called oligodendrocyte progenitors that are stored in the brain and eventually become myelin-making cells. “We are looking at progenitors in too narrow a view,” he advised, suggesting they may be involved in more than just developing into oligodendrocytes. “Progenitors are found everywhere, even in regions where there is no myelin. They may be involved in conditioning the environment around the lesion [area of tissue damage] to allow myelin repair to occur.”
Stopping MS progression:
Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar Francisco Quintana, PhD (Harvard Medical School) discussed his team’s research on a lab model of progressive MS. “If you remove astrocytes [brain cells] during the acute phase of disease, it worsens, but in the progressive phase, disease improves.” By evaluating astrocyte-related gene activity during each phase, the team has identified a molecule (B4galt6) which, when inhibited, may reduce disease progression. The team has identified B4galt6 in tissue samples from people with MS, so this research is moving forward.
Tracking the immune attack:
Postdoctoral fellow Jessica Williams, PhD (Washington University in St. Louis) and colleagues are studying factors that likely determine where immune cells enter the brain or spinal cord in MS. Where these cells end up, and where they inflict damage, dictates the symptoms experienced by the individual. “So if we can profile a person’s activated T cells and predict where damage will occur, we could focus therapies and rehabilitation early to maintain function,” she said. The team, led by her mentor Robyn Klein, MD, PhD, has pinpointed a molecule – CXCL12 – that may direct this process.
How the brain bounces back:
Senior scientist Kathleen Zackowski, PhD (Kennedy Krieger Research Institute) noted that areas of damage observed on MRI scans in people with MS don’t necessarily match up with clinical symptoms. “Plasticity may explain this lack of correlation,” she said, referring to the brain’s ability to adapt or rewire following damage to preserve function. For these reasons, she noted, “we should recommend rehabilitation as early as possible, but there is also evidence that neuroplasticity can occur later in the course of MS.”
An important goal of the Tykeson Fellows Conference is to solidify fellows’ commitment to careers in MS. That’s why fellows joined with more than 750 participants at the Society’s National Leadership Conference at several events, enabling attendees to connect and share stories. One session featured 66 posters outlining research projects, encouraging fellows to talk about their research with Leadership Conference participants.
An award for best poster presentation went to fellow Andrew Smith, III, MD (University of Rochester), for his description of a new computer-based system that reduces the time necessary for testing cognitive function. Attendees from the Leadership Conference awarded the “People’s Choice” poster award to Nikolaos Patsopoulos, MD, PhD (Harvard Medical School) for his poster on a study comparing the genetics of MS and other immune system-mediated diseases.
A new feature of the fellows’ conference was a session encouraging fellows to become involved in the Society’s advocacy efforts to increase MS research funding. Read more
in a blog from fellows Dr. Orthmann-Murphy and Lori Blanchfield, PhD (Emory University), who joined this year’s Rally for Medical Research on Capitol Hill.
During the course of the conference, several fellows who work in basic research commented on how meaningful it was to meet people who live with the disease they study in the lab. Many also expressed their gratitude for Society funding and for the ability to network with peers and mentors. As fellow Bardia Nourbakhsh, MD (University of California, San Francisco) put it, “We are grateful for the opportunity to work on this very enigmatic puzzle, and we aim to solve it.”