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Young MS Researchers Take the Stage at Tykeson Fellows Conference

November 29, 2017

  • The Sixth Tykeson Fellows Conference brought more than 110 young research and clinical trainees of the National MS Society, MS International Federation, and MS Society of Canada together with senior scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts and to build lasting collaborations.
  • The conference featured presentations from senior 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 multiple sclerosis research.
  • Check out more exciting research from the Tykeson Conference in this Facebook video.
The Sixth Tykeson Fellows Conference brought more than 110 research and clinical trainees of the National MS Society, MS International Federation, and MS Society of Canada 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 Denver, Colorado.
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.
“Attracting and supporting brilliant and passionate people is an important part of our plan,” said Cyndi Zagieboylo, President and CEO of the National MS Society, in welcoming remarks. “You will lead us to cures for MS. We will do whatever it takes to support your work.”
Solving Progression
Peter Calabresi, MD (Johns Hopkins University) delivered The Patricia A. O’Looney Memorial Lecture, named in memory of a former Vice President of Biomedical Research at the Society. Dr. Calabresi tackled “The Unsolved Mystery” of MS progression, and how research on the nerve network in the back of the eye (retina) may help to unravel this mystery.
“I’ve become fascinated with the retina because it’s a microcosm of everything that happens in MS,” he said. “We can quantify damage with optical coherence tomography [OCT] and learn about how MS develops.”
Dr. Calabresi noted that research on the visual problems that occurs in people with MS has been guided by the experiences of people with the disease. “Listen to your patients, because they know what’s wrong with them,” he told the young clinicians in the audience. “Patients would come to me and say they didn’t see red, or they were not driving at night, and they thought it was because they were too old,” he recalled. “But they were in their 40s.”
A series of studies on vision revealed that, although people with MS might have 20/20 vision, losses in visual acuity and damage to the optic nerve were affecting visual quality of life. Dr. Calabresi and others received the Society’s Barancik Prize for this research in 2015.
Nerve degeneration in the retina may be a sign of progression down the road, said Dr. Calabresi. “I think there will be a day when we will incorporate this into the MS diagnostic and prognostic package.”
Driving MS Breakthroughs
The conference featured presentations from senior scientists and fellows. Researchers reported on promising research to drive breakthroughs that will stop MS, restore function and end MS forever.
Predicting disability: Postdoctoral Fellow Maria Absinta, MD, PhD (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD) discussed an important new imaging finding that may help to predict disability in individuals with MS. Using very powerful 7-Tesla imaging (which allows researchers to see with greater detail much smaller areas of the brain than conventional scans), her team looked at areas of MS activity (lesions) that did or did not have rims of “smoldering” inflammation. They examined annual scans over more than 10 years. “Lesions that did not have a rim would shrink, but those with rims remained or expanded,” she said. “Patients who had several lesions with rims reached disability earlier.” If the findings are confirmed, in the future detecting lesion rims may help to track the course of MS and determine the effectiveness of therapies.
New cells in town: Benjamin Segal, MD (University of Michigan) began his career with a Harry Weaver Neuroscience Award from the Society. “That really helped to get me on my feet and I am eternally grateful to the National MS Society,” he began, noting how much the MS treatment landscape has changed since that time. “We now have more than a dozen treatments that reduce risk – that really is a revolution.”
These treatments mostly target “lymphocytes” (immune cells known as T cells and B cells), but other cells may be more problematic. “There is lots of circumstantial evidence that myeloid cells are causing the damage,” he said. Myeloid cells are derived from bone marrow, and include dendritic cells and macrophages. “They reactivate T cells within lesions, and can secrete toxic proteins that further promulgate the inflammatory response.” Some subsets of myeloid cells, however, have been shown to enhance nervous system repair. Dr. Segal noted that therapies that could suppress inflammatory myeloid cells, while enhancing reparative cells, would be great therapeutic targets for stopping MS and possibly even restoring function.
Epigenetics: Postdoctoral fellow Matthew Lincoln, MD, DPhil (Yale University) was awarded “Best Poster” for his presentation on the increasingly important field of “epigenetics.” In MS, immune cells cause nervous system damage by targeting and destroying nerve- insulating myelin. Environmental factors such as salt exposure may cause structural (epigenetic) changes to DNA that in turn affect gene activity and drive inflammation. Dr. Lincoln’s team is characterizing these epigenetic changes in two types of immune T cells. So far, they have identified changes in people with MS that may reduce the capabilities of “good” T cells that can regulate the immune response. “We hope to identify the specific epigenetic changes that may cause MS,” said Dr. Lincoln.
Finding the words: Cognitive problems can occur in many people with MS, and one of these can be word-finding. Clinical fellow Rachel Brandstadter, MD (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai) and her team have developed the Test of Naming Efficiency (TONE) to precisely assess word-finding problems. They showed that this test assessed these deficits in 100 people with MS, and found that TONE performance was linked to thickness of tissue in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. Teasing out the source of cognitive problems is a key step toward therapeutic strategies that can resolve them.
Searching for viral triggers: Ryan Schubert, MD, a Clinician Scientist Fellow funded by the National MS Society and American Brain Foundation, also earned a “Best Poster” prize for describing his team’s comprehensive approach to research on the role of viruses in MS. Dr. Schubert’s mentor, Stephen Hauser, MD, is conducting a study called EPIC II in which people with a first demyelinating event (a possible first sign of MS) provide blood and spinal fluid samples. Dr. Schubert is applying a test that quantifies antibodies – immune system proteins that are created to fight viruses – to samples from the EPIC II study. He is testing whether antibody patterns can predict a second demyelinating event, which would signify a transition to a definite diagnosis of MS, and indicate that viruses played a part in the transition. “The strength of this project rests upon our innovative and multidisciplinary team-based approach,” said Dr. Schubert. “It blends the best of clinical medicine, neurology, genonmics and proteomics.”
MRI: Who needs to know? Many people with MS, as it turns out. Insa Schiffmann, MD (Universtaet Hamburg) reported on a survey of 498 people with MS which explored knowledge and feelings about magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Respondents answered 65% percent of questions on MRI correctly. Those with more knowledge felt more competent and had less fear of MRI results. Feelings of incompetence and fear were especially pronounced in participants who had had MS for less than five years. Based on the results, Dr. Schiffman’s team has developed an interactive web-based platform, “Understanding MRI in MS,” which includes details on how MRI works, and how scans are analyzed. The team is testing whether this tool increases knowledge and feelings of competence in 120 people with MS.
Career Advice from the Pros
The conference is a great opportunity for senior scientists to answer questions and provide direction to young fellows. Career sessions allowed for specific discussions on relationships with mentors, the “business side” of a career in science, how to carve out a research niche, and other topics.
“You should always do the science you think is the most exciting,” advised Kelly Monk, PhD, Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar (Oregon Health & Science University). Wendy Macklin, PhD (University of Colorado), a renowned expert on myelin, commented on the unique nature of the MS field. “The great thing about our field – and I’ve seen it since I was a graduate student – is that the established people want the junior people to succeed.”
Ellen Mowry, MD, specifically talked about the opportunities available in the field of clinical research, such as the Sylvia Lawry Fellowship on conducting clinical trials, which helped launched her own career. “We in the field of MS – especially clinicians – are really lucky to have the support of the National MS Society,” she said. “My colleagues in other fields did not have these opportunities.”
Fellows showed their appreciation for the advice, and the conference. “This is my second Tykeson Conference and I always find it extremely stimulating,” said Andres Cruz-Herranz, MD (University of California, San Francsico). “It’s a tremendous privilege to be here one more time.”
Check out more exciting research from the Tykeson Conference in this Facebook video, where Elisabeth Mari, PhD, Director of Biomedical Research at the Society, talks with fellows Meredith Hartley, PhD (Oregon Health & Science University, winner of the People’s Choice Award for Best Poster), Kathryn Fitzgerald, DSc, MSc (Johns Hopkins University), Michael Kornberg, MD, PhD (Johns Hopkins University, winner of the Best Oral Presentation), and Haley Titus, PhD (Northwestern University).

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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