Highlights from the 5th Annual Neuroinflammation Symposium

Last week I attended the 5th Annual Neuroinflammation Symposium – an interactive and interdisciplinary series of presentations focused on research in neuroinflammation. Neuroinflammation is a topic very closely related to multiple sclerosis. MS is characterized by the appearance of tissue damage or plaques in the central nervous system. This damage is mainly caused by inflammation, and accounts for symptoms frequently seen in people living with MS: mobility impairment, blurred vision, weakness and spasticity, and cognitive dysfunction.

The Neuroinflammation Symposium is a unique opportunity to assemble scientists and clinicians from around the world in a forum for knowledge sharing and discussion. It also brings in other members of MS community such as myself and students who are keen on pursuing MS research, to come and learn about what is happening in the neuroinflammation field.

This year’s meeting, which took place in Toronto, focused specifically on the mechanism of disease – how MS develops and progresses – as well as novel therapeutic approaches that can control inflammation in people with MS. Here are a few highlights from the presentations.

Myelin repair as the next frontier in MS research

Dr. Catherine Lubetzki is neurologist and world-leading MS scientist who studies myelin repair at the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière in Paris, France. She presented her research on the genetic and molecular events that enable repair of myelin following an MS attack. According to Dr. Lubetzki, myelin repair is highly-regulated and time-sensitive process. In order for successful repair to occur, four very important steps must take place: 1) activation of cells that can produce myelin 2) recruitment of these cells to the site of tissue damage 3) maturation – a step wherein cells become capable of producing myelin 4) myelin production. Dr. Lubetzki’s recent research revealed that oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), which are cells that mature into myelin-producing oligodendrocytes, are able to turn on certain genes that accelerate their ability to mature and move to the site of tissue injury. She identified a number of specific genes, including one which codes for the molecule CCL2. Dr. Lubetzki and colleagues found that increased levels of CCL2 were found in areas of demyelination (myelin loss), which suggests that CCL2 may be helping OPCs travel to these areas to repair the myelin. Her team identified a number of other important guidance molecules such as semaphorins and Netrin 1, which have shown to be strongly involved in the 4-step repair process mentioned above. Dr. Lubetzki’s current research focuses on targeting the appropriate molecules to enhance myelin repair as quickly as possible. She emphasized that repairing myelin at the right time will spare further, irreversible damage to the nerve cells which is what often leads to disability.

Exploring stem cells

Dr. Robert Miller from the Department of Neurosciences at Case Western Reserve University discussed progress in stem cell research in the context of MS. Mesechymal stem cells (MSCs) are one group of stem cells which give rise to bone, fat a number of other cells. Researchers have identified a number of unique properties of MSCs that make them a potential candidate for MS treatment. MSCs have been shown to decrease inflammation and improve functional recovery in mice that have an MS-like disease. They also produce molecules that can promote oligodendrocyte growth, enhance myelin production, and influence immune cells to become less autoreactive. Dr. Miller identified one specific molecule, called hepatocyte growth factor, as an important contributor to the ability of MSCs to control MS disease. Hepatocyte growth factor helps cells grow and move around, and is associated with tissue repair and regeneration processes. Recent evidence demonstrates that hepatocyte growth factor can also promote myelin repair and reduce inflammation. According to Dr. Miller, researchers are now in the midst of testing various ways of treating MS with MSCs, including autologous treatment (using the person’s own stem cells) versus treatment with stem cells from other sources.

The link between cholesterol and MS

Dr. Murali Ramanathan from the University of Buffalo presented on the potential link between cholesterol and MS. The brain contains about 25% of the body’s cholesterol, and cholesterol can have a direct influence on the immune system and metabolism of vitamin D. Studies have shown that cholesterol has an effect on inflammation, immune cell migration and neurodegeneration. Population health studies including one by MS Society-funded researcher Dr. Ruth Ann Marrie from the University of Manitoba have demonstrated that certain cardiovascular conditions appear in individuals with MS and may be associated with increased MS risk. Other studies looking at the relationship between cholesterol and other factors related to MS such as levels of Epstein-Barr virus antibodies are now being pursued to better understand the role of cholesterol in MS.

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