A triumph of teamwork and collaboration: MSSRF awards 3.2M to Canadian pediatric MS research group

Thinking back to my days in the lab, one thing that sticks out in my mind is the importance of teamwork. Collaborative research fosters sharing of knowledge, exchange of practices, opportunities for training and mentorship, and the birth of new knowledge. Collaboration across disciplines, geographic regions and scientific expertise moves research forward, and enables investigators to achieve goals that would otherwise be difficult when working in isolation.

Yesterday the MS Scientific Research Foundation announced a $3.2 million grant to study the impact of MS in children and adolescents – termed “pediatric MS”. Until recently, pediatric MS was poorly understood. It wasn’t until the creation of the Canadian Pediatric Demyelinating Disease Network (or “the Network” as I refer to it) that the topic of pediatric MS gained significant attention among the scientific and medical communities. The Network – led by world-leading pediatric MS neurologist Dr. Brenda Banwell from The Hospital of Sick Children and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – continues to be a true example of collaboration, with involvement of 19 pediatric health care and research intuitions across Canada.

Over the last decade, the Network collected vital data from over 430 children and adolescents who were affected by demyelination. They were observed from the very first signs of illness and monitored over time. Extensive clinical, cognitive, personal, biological, and imaging data was collected, which enabled the Network to identify MS risk factors, grasp the underlying disease mechanism, and evaluate the mental and societal impacts of a disease that many believed only occurred in adults. The Network discovered that pediatric MS affected memory and learning, and that pediatric MS patients experienced slower brain growth and more brain tissue loss than kids of the same age who didn’t have MS.

These discoveries were made possible because of collaboration – the coming together of the brightest minds in the country who leveraged resources to address an important unmet need. With this newly awarded funding, the majority of the sites in the Network will continue to study pediatric MS with fresh research questions, more advanced technology, and the comprehensive pediatric MS cohort established by Dr. Banwell and her colleagues. The team will focus on:

– Understanding the impact of pediatric MS on physical and mental wellbeing, cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety and decreased physical activity, etc., and on the use of health services by patients and their parents

– Assessing MRI patterns, and examining the relationship between what is observed on MRI and how the patient is doing overall

– Determining irregularities in immune cells in pediatric patients and identifying whether low vitamin D or infection with Epstein-Barr Virus influences these irregularities

To achieve these aims, the team will employ a comprehensive list of methods, which reflects the multi-disciplinary nature of the team. Ultimately the goal is to advance our understanding of how MS develops in children and adolescents, how MS impacts them physically, cognitively, and emotionally, and how the research community can use this knowledge to develop therapeutic strategies tailored to the needs of pediatric patients. What’s more, this research has important implications for understanding MS in adults. In particular we will better understand the earliest events and potential triggers that may lead to adult-onset MS, which can only be studied through the lens of pediatric research.

Stay tuned for more updates on this study, including an 3-part interview with Dr. Banwell!

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