Looking back on the 2016 endMS Conference

Now that the dust has settled from last week’s endMS Conference and the country’s top MS researchers have returned home to continue their amazing work, we can reflect back on the week and celebrate the coming together of so many great minds that have embarked on tackling the many unresolved questions about MS. In organizing the endMS Conference, we set out to bring researchers of all levels, at various stages of their careers, together in one room, to forge new collaborations and enrich each other and the field of MS research as a whole. Over the course of the conference, I was able to reconnect with old colleagues, make new friends and learn about all of the exciting developments in MS research that are currently happening across Canada and the rest of the world.

endMS Conference trainees pose for a group photo

endMS Conference trainees pose for a group photo

The scientific program was brimming with content, and we heard from both local and international speakers – who are some of the leaders in their respective fields – provide an overview of advances in the field along with updates about their cutting-edge research. The conference was also an opportunity for a handful of research trainees to present their work in front of an audience of their peers and mentors; these trainee presenters, whose submitted abstracts were top-ranked by a peer review committee, represent some of the best and brightest young minds that will be carrying the torch of MS research for decades to come.

Each of the four plenary sessions focused on a separate theme, and the presentations discussed a broad range of topics that touched on nearly every imaginable aspect of MS, including:

  • Cognition and Behaviour, with insights into depression in MS, the effects of exercise on cognitive function, risk factors in pediatric-onset MS, and factors affecting nursing home entry among people living with MS.
  • Neuroimmunology, with breakthroughs in identifying targets that prevent entry of harmful immune cells into the brain and spinal cord, the different roles of B cells in MS, insights into translational research, and mapping the genetic risk factors for MS.
  • Repair and neuroprotection, with the latest research on the biology of oligodendrocytes (myelin producing cell), clinical trials investigating neuroprotection, the role of imaging techniques in gauging repair, and the effects of such factors as aging and exercise on remyelination.
  • Progressive MS, with discussions of the relationship between inflammation and progressive MS biology, drug repurposing, clinical trial design, and imaging techniques.

While the plenary presentations are an ideal platform for presenting research to a broad audience, poster presentations allow researchers a chance to interact one-on-one with their scientific peers to explain their study in detail, answer questions and gather valuable feedback for improving their study. This year, we had over 120 trainees and senior researchers giving poster presentations, and the research team and I had a chance to chat with many of the presenters and get an in-depth look at their findings. Check out our archived Facebook Live coverage at [link] to meet some of the talented poster presenters at the conference and catch a glimpse of their research.

A unique aspect of the conference was the trainee session, in which trainees are invited to take part in workshops that allow them to explore ways to apply their research knowledge and skills beyond the laboratory. The theme of this year’s trainee session was career development. The goal of the session was to showcase the range of career paths in science and healthcare available for trainees to pursue following their training. Trainees heard from an amazing panel of mentors hailing from academia, industry, government and health charities. Throughout the session, trainees had a chance to speak to the mentors and soak up their personal stories and wisdom, which in turn helped to shape their outlook on their own careers.

A personal highlight for me was our HEAR MS day. HEAR MS stands for Hope and Engagement through Accelerating Research in Multiple Sclerosis, and was a day dedicated to building and strengthening connections between research trainees and people affected by MS. While researchers are very familiar with MS through their work in the laboratory and careful analysis of data, it is people who live with MS and who have family members and friends with MS who experience the ups and downs of MS each day and know how MS affects them physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.

Throughout HEAR MS Day, people affected by MS and trainees worked side-by-side on activities designed to challenge trainees to think about their research into a broader context by hearing, first-hand, the perspectives shared by people affected by MS. These conversations allowed researchers to gain a better understanding of MS at a personal level, and at the same time people affected by MS had a chance to learn about the various studies that are being led by promising young investigators. Ultimately the goal of HEAR MS Day was to foster dialogue between two communities, which will ultimately enrich the way research is conducted and translated into meaningful outcomes for people affected by MS.

As the endMS Conference wound down to a close, the experience left me feeling inspired and hopeful about the future of MS research and a better life for Canadians affected by the disease. I wanted to extend a warm thank you to all the incredible attendees who came down to Toronto from all corners of the country and beyond; the conference would not have been possible without you!

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