The Ninth Tykeson Fellows Conference brought together more than 90 attendees, including young research and clinical trainees and experienced scientists to learn about each other’s latest research efforts and to build lasting collaborations. This meeting is key to the National MS Society’s effort to continue to build and nurture the MS professional workforce to relentlessly pursue pathways to cures and to ensure access to care.
“Our surveys show that more than 90% of you will stay in the MS research field throughout your careers,” said Cyndi Zagieboylo, President & Chief Executive Officer of the Society. “You are the ones who will find the cures for MS.”
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.
The conference was held in parallel with the Society’s Leadership Conference in Dallas, Texas. It featured presentations from established scientists and fellows funded by the Society and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reporting on promising research aligning with the Pathways to Cures roadmap
to stop MS in its tracks, restore function to those who have it, and end MS forever. It also included a lively poster session that enabled the fellows to display and explain their work to Leadership Conference participants. Here are a few highlights:
Daniel Reich, MD, PhD (National Institutes of Health, NIH) delivered The Patricia A. O’Looney Memorial Lecture, named in memory of a former Vice President of Biomedical Research at the Society. Dr. Reich discussed the “next frontier” in finding new therapies for MS – figuring out how the immune response that occurs in MS links to damage in the nervous system. With his research group, Dr. Reich has developed an imaging approach that detects a specific type of inflammation in the brain. Rims of “smoldering” inflammation in the tissues that surround the brain are associated with ongoing damage and earlier disability. Being able to track rims during trials of therapies may enable researchers to test therapies in hundreds of participants, rather than thousands. “This might be a tremendous therapeutic window to accelerate repair in the brain,” said Dr. Reich. Three small, early trials are underway at the NIH to determine how various therapeutic strategies, including high-dose steroids
, affect smoldering inflammation.
Biomarkers in diverse populations:
Neda Sattarnezhad, MD (Stanford University) is a Society-funded Sylvia Lawry Physician Fellow. Named for the Society’s founder, this award trains recipients to learn how to conduct clinical studies in people with MS. MS is more severe in Black people, and Dr. Sattarnezhad is exploring whether biomarkers in the blood differ as well. Her team studied 53 people with MS (people who were treated with disease-modifying therapies, not experiencing relapses, and with no active disease activity on MRI scans), and 30 people with other neurological disorders. Black people in the MS group had increased levels of two blood biomarkers linked to worse scores on scales measuring function. If confirmed, the findings might indicate the usefulness of these biomarkers for detecting a worse disease course earlier in Black people with MS. Learn more about MS in the Black community
Making the cells that make myelin:
Hiroko Nobuta, PhD, is funded with a Career Transition Fellowship from the Society, which enables young researchers to cross from the fellowship stage to early faculty positions. Thanks to this award, Dr. Nobuta opened her own laboratory at Rutgers University in 2020. She is breaking new ground in the effort to find ways to replace the cells that make the myelin that is damaged in MS. “Currently available models rely on transforming cells into stem cells, which requires a lengthy process (over 2 months) and high cost. We have developed a method to directly convert human skin cells into myelin-making cells, with improved speed, cost, and safety.” This new technique may speed efforts to discover new repair therapies and restore function in people with MS.
Taking fitness home:
People with MS may experience unevenness in the strength and function of their legs. This can lead to poor mobility, falls, and a reduced quality of life. Brett Fling, PhD (Colorado State University) and colleagues are studying how a novel “split-belt” treadmill can help to balance leg function. Importantly, the team is pairing this cumbersome, expensive equipment with wearable sensors that provide muscle stimulation. “If we want to make people more independent and improve quality of life, we have to do more than just get them into our laboratory for a brief period of time,” he commented. After sessions in the lab, participants are using the sensors at home. Early results suggest that walking is improving in people with MS with the treadmill/sensors, and that the improvements are sustained in daily life. Dr. Fling is funded by the Society’s Harry Weaver Scholar Award.
Sleep and cognition:
Thomas R. Valentine, PhD (University of Michigan) is funded through a Mentor-Based Rehabilitation Research Fellowship awarded to Anna Kratz, PhD. His team tested cognition in 131 people living with MS with known or suspected obstructive sleep apnea that hadn’t yet been treated. He found that the severity of sleep apnea was linked to cognitive problems with thinking speed, attention, and memory. It is unknown, he notes, but worth exploring, whether treating apnea can reduce cognitive problems in people with MS. Get strategies for improving sleep.
Remotely monitoring bladder function:
Career Transition Fellow Valerie Block, DPTSc, PT (University of California, San Francisco) has been testing the ability of remote technology to monitor and treat bladder problems in the home. “How often do we get to see patients?” she says. “These sporadic visits do not give us a complete picture of how people are functioning. Remote monitoring can be collected in the home setting, for long periods of time – and has the benefit of showing us a better picture of how the patient is doing,” In previous work, her team remotely monitored people with MS using Fitbits over one year and captured meaningful changes in function. Now, they are assessing the effectiveness of wearable technologies for monitoring and even treating bladder dysfunction. Dr. Block encourages people not to hesitate to seek help for bladder problems – you CAN take control
Myelin repair strategy?
Postdoctoral Fellow Gustavo Della Flora Nunes, PhD (University of Colorado) and colleagues are testing whether an experimental molecule similar to a thyroid hormone (called LL-341070) can help to repair nerve-insulating myelin and restore visual function in a mouse model of MS. Early findings show that the loss of myelin-making cells is linked to decreases in visual function. They found that three weeks of treatment with LL-341070 resulted in replacement of lost cells and restored visual function. This is a first step toward testing it in people. A small, early safety study
of ABX-002 (Autobahn Therapeutics), which is similar to LL-341070, is in the planning stages in people without MS. If it proves to be safe in this study, trials involving people with MS could proceed.
Surgical approach to MS pain:
Hossein Mousavi, MD (University of Texas Health at
Houston) is funded with a Clinical Care Fellowship from the Society. He explored the effectiveness of “radiofrequency lesioning,” which involves using needles to deliver radio waves that interrupt pain signals. This is one approach used to treat difficult cases of trigeminal neuralgia, a stabbing pain in the face or jaw area that can occur as an initial symptom of MS or as a relapse. He reviewed data on 51 people who underwent radiofrequency lesioning at the university over 23 years. Fifty of these people reported immediate pain relief. At one year after the procedure, 86% reported no pain; those numbers reduced to 52% at three years and 22% at six years. Side effects in four people included muscle weakness and numbness. Although not a first-line treatment, this strategy can be a solution for this painful symptom of MS. Get a handle on MS pain
Ending MS Forever
Genetic lessons from other diseases:
Matthew Lincoln, MD, DPhil, is a Career Transition Fellow who recently joined the faculty at the University of Toronto. Dr. Lincoln and colleagues are combining MS genetic data with similar data from several other autoimmune diseases that share basic disease processes. Early data show overlapping genes that are associated with MS and other diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease. Interestingly, these genes might increase risk of one disease while decreasing risk of another. This team continues to examine how these genetic variants work in the cells and if these variabilities explain differences in MS symptoms, response to therapy, and disease progression.
The conference also included sessions to help fellows cement their commitment to the MS movement, on topics such as becoming successful faculty members. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science led a workshop on how to communicate with nonscientists about research. Nuriel Moghavem, MD (University of Southern California), who was funded through an Institutional Clinical Training Award, discussed the value of engaging in advocacy efforts that increase access to healthcare. Without continued advocacy, he said, “we might find the cure for MS but we wouldn’t be able to get it to everyone who has this disease.”
Scientific Planning Committee
The planning committee for the conference included several fellows:
Brett Fling, PhD (Colorado State University)
Elizabeth S. Gromisch, PhD, MSCS (Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital, Trinity
Health Of New England)
Mysti Harrison, MD (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)
Lindsey Knowles, PhD (University of Washington)
Andrew Mendiola, PhD (Gladstone Institutes)
Hiroko Nobuta, PhD (Rutgers University)
Stephanie Tankou, MD, PhD (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)