Highlighting Canada’s best and brightest: My interview with Dr. Jiwon Oh

As we continue on the path to finding a cure for MS, it’s important to support our network of hardworking and talented MS researchers here in Canada. The MS Society is always thinking of new ways to stimulate interest in MS research among young people, and provide them with the tools they need to conduct groundbreaking studies and collaborate with other experts in the field. One great example that comes to mind is the MS Society of Canada’s endMS Transitional Career Development (TCD) award, which was awarded to Dr. Jiwon Oh in 2012. The TCD award is intended to fund promising individuals who are beginning their careers as independent researchers and to encourage them to either continue or begin pursuing work in MS here in our great country.

Dr. Oh is a researcher and neurologist who is extremely dedicated to the field of MS, and who has done exciting work so far in her career. With support from the TCD award, Dr. Oh began a faculty position at the University of Toronto, having previously completed her PhD and clinical fellowship at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Along with being an assistant professor at U of T, Dr. Oh works at St. Michael’s hospital where she splits her time between seeing patients in the MS clinic and doing exciting MS research using a sophisticated imaging procedure called optical coherence tomography through collaborations with John Hopkins University.

Photo credit: Jiwon Oh

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Oh about her research involving optical coherence tomography and what it’s like balancing clinical work with research. Here is what she shared with me.

Can you explain what optical coherence tomography (OCT) is?

It’s a non-invasive ultrasound technique that looks at the back of the eye. It measures specific layers within the retina, which is very useful because we know that the retina is commonly affected in MS. A number of studies have come out that show that these retinal layers not only are linked to altered visual function in MS but also seem to reflect the state of disease in the entire central nervous system. It seems that the retina acts as a window into better understanding MS as a whole and not only MS that is within the eye.

How do we differentiate between NMO (neuromyelitis optica) and MS when looking at the layers of the eye?

Neuromyelitis optica is a disease that is similar to MS because it involves myelin loss. However, instead of affecting the spinal cord and brain, NMO is a disease of the spinal cord and optic nerve, which is the nerve connecting the eyes to the brain. There are many characteristics that differentiate MS from NMO, such as how the diseases appear on MRI. We have shown that damage to the layers in the eye is much more severe with one attack of NMO, as opposed to an attack of MS. There is a clear difference in how much tissue is lost after an NMO attack that involves the optic nerve, as opposed to an MS attack that involves the optic nerve.

How long have you been involved with this type of procedure and what led you to this avenue of research?

Actually my field of work is mainly in advanced MRI research but researchers in part of our lab at Hopkins are the true experts in OCT. As a result, I’ve been peripherally involved in many of these projects for about three years. Specifically, the idea for this study is to identify links between the optic nerve and the spinal cord, which no group has yet looked at yet. This work can obtain important information on spinal cord dysfunction in MS, which will help clarify mechanisms of how lesions cause symptoms such as mobility impairment.

How is it like balancing your clinical duties with the research side?

I think the balance is very important. The best researchers are ones that are very familiar with the field clinically. There’s so many things that you learn just from seeing patients every day so I think it’s an essential part of being an effective clinical researcher. But it is very difficult to multitask and you’re often juggling many things. It’s a challenge, but I’m striving to try to find the right balance as I transition into my faculty position. I know that I will continue to pursue both paths- be a clinician and a researcher. In the end, this is why I’m a doctor. As much as the field of research is exciting, I think the most exciting part of it is being able to tell patients about it and come up with things that potentially can make a difference to them.

How has the TCD [Transitional Career Development Award] helped in that transitional period for you?

It’s really been career changing. Recently I was asked what the greatest career accomplishment I’ve had is and I can honestly say it was receiving that award. It’s made it possible for me to decide how much research I would like to do and that is not always the case for everyone. Receiving support from the TCD enabled me to focus my time in specific areas of research that I was most interested in, like MRI. It really set the foundation for the rest of my career.

7 thoughts on “Highlighting Canada’s best and brightest: My interview with Dr. Jiwon Oh

  1. Era

    Hello,
    I am very interested in the following presentation:
    The abstract titled, A Combination Trial of Estriol Plus Glatiramer Acetate in Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis: Effects on Disabilities, will be featured in an oral presentation on Friday, September 12, 2014, at 8:39am (ET).
    I have had MS for 17 years and like other women, when I was pregnant 13 years ago, I noticed a vast improvement in my MS symptoms
    I have been following Dr. Voskhul and her research. I am very excited like many MS patients by her results.
    Do you have any further information?
    Cheers,
    Era Hancock

    Reply
      1. Era

        Hello Dr. K,
        Thank you so much for replying to my email!!! I was so impressed you read my interest in estriol!
        I can hardly wait to hear Dr. Voskul’s results of third trial!
        Cheers,
        Era

        Reply
  2. Lynette Hunter

    Read your interview and was quite impressed. I was diagnosed with NMO beginning of 2014 by my neurologist in Portland, Oregon. I have now returned to Toronto and would really like to see Dr. Jiwon Oh. My health card will not be effective until Feb. 2/15 and in the meantime I am without a neurologist who is aware of NMO and I am almost out of my medication. I am willing to pay out-of-pocket for a consult with Dr. Oh. Would it be possible that you speak to her about my case given that this is a rare disease and not too many people have it. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciate. I am trying everything and everybody.

    Thanks again

    Lynette Hunter

    Reply
    1. drkarenlee Post author

      Hi Lynette,

      Welcome back to Toronto and thank you reading the blog. Dr. Oh is currently at St. Michael’s Hospital MS Clinic, which is located downtown. You can try and arrange an appointment with her or another member of the medical team to discuss your situation further. If you are ever on the West Coast again, you can also check out Dr. Anthony Traboulsee at the NMO Clinic in Vancouver. Check out his page at http://nmo.vchri.ca/about-us.

      Dr. K

      Reply
  3. Lisa Elliott

    Can you have ms and a normal Mri ? I had a attack a year ago with numbness , tremor and muscle contractions . All Mro normal and blood work . Since a year I have fatigue , stiff muscles , hard to walk upstairs . I wake up with a headache each morning . I am so sure this is ms . How can I get help ?

    Reply
    1. drkarenlee Post author

      Hi Lisa,

      A small percentage (approximately 5%) of people do not show signs of lesions on MRI despite the occurrence of symptoms suggestive of MS, perhaps because the lesions are small or in locations that make detection difficult. If MS is suspected, the neurologist can conduct additional tests, including analyzing blood samples or cerebrospinal fluid to test for the presence of certain inflammation proteins, or testing the speed of nerve conduction in the brain. Each case is unique, and it can take a while for a diagnosis to be confirmed and for other potential causes of the symptoms to be ruled out. The best course of action is to write down all of the symptoms you’re feeling in as much detail as you can and report them to your neurologist, who can then decide the next best course of action for you.

      Also, please check out our website or Dr. Paul O’Connor’s book for more information about diagnosing MS.

      Reply

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