The faces behind the research: Spotlight on wellness and MS, Part I

Today, the MS Society announced the three recipients of the Hermès Canada | MS Society Wellness Research Innovation Grant. Each grant recipient will receive $40,000 over one year to embark on a research study that will lead to a better understanding of wellness and how to integrate physical activity and rehabilitation approaches into MS care and lifestyle for people affected by MS. I’m very excited to see these grants out the door as they represent the culmination of more than a year of planning and consultation with the MS community. This included the valuable feedback on wellness priorities gathered through the MS Wellness Survey, the contribution of our community representatives on the independent review panel for the grants, and the ongoing involvement of people affected by MS in each of the projects as a central pillar of their community engagement strategies.

I’m also excited to learn more about the amazing people who have taken the reins on these studies. Each one of them brings to their study their unique expertise in wellness and/or MS, along with deep roots in their local communities, in a perfect mix that makes them well-positioned to tackle gaps in wellness faced by people affected by MS.

In this multi-part series, I will be featuring interviews with each of the researchers and community innovators leading their respective Hermès Canada | MS Society Wellness Research Innovation Grants to give you a glimpse at the amazing personalities and stories behind the research. This week, we’ll focus on Dr. Charity Evans, Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Saskatchewan, and Jana and Jason Danielson, co-owners of multidisciplinary health and wellness studio Lead Integrated Health Therapies, and their study titled “Determining the Impact of a Pilates Program in Multiple Sclerosis”

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Hack4Health: Innovative MS wellness solutions take centre-stage

It feels like only yesterday that Team Tera Bio Solutions (TBS), a group of creative, young science and engineering students at University of Waterloo, were awarded $15,000 from the MS Society to create a technological concept and develop it into a wellness tool for people living with multiple sclerosis. The blueprint for this tool was borne out of Hack4Health, a “hackathon” based at University of Waterloo in September last year in which teams of students were given 36 caffeine-fueled hours to put their heads together and develop wellness solutions with the potential to improve quality of life for people living with MS or dementia. To guide their thought process, participants of Hack4Health relied on the wellness priorities expressed by the MS community, both through the MS Wellness Survey and through interacting with people living with MS who acted as mentors during the event. Fast forward one year, and Team TBS is a few steps closer to completing the prototype for its wellness concept. So what has Team TBS been working on since their project kicked off earlier this year, and what inspired them to pursue this approach in the first place?

Team TBS (left to right: Abhinav Grover, Denez Zahra Bokhari, Muhammad Inzamam Tahir, Muhammad Tahsin Sharif)

Team TBS (left to right: Abhinav Grover, Denez Zahra Bokhari, Muhammad Inzamam Tahir, Muhammad Tahsin Sharif)

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Late-breaking ECTRIMS 2016 session unveils new biomarkers, real-world treatment comparisons, and clinical trial results

Each year ECTRIMS ends with a bang as late-breaking research news is presented first thing in the morning. Presenters at the late-breaking news session deliver the newest key findings of pivotal studies and clinical trials. At the session, we heard about a new potential biomarker that can help evaluate the success of progressive MS trials, the effectiveness of available MS disease-modifying therapies in the real world, and topline results from clinical trials of emerging progressive MS and symptom management treatments. Read on for highlights from the ECTRIMS late-breaking news session.


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Poster session at ECTRIMS 2016 covers the gamut of wellness and symptom management research

While platform presentations tend to get all the glory and attention at scientific conferences, I like to think of poster presentations as the unsung heroes that cover an enormous breadth of topics and give researchers at all stages of their careers an opportunity to showcase their research. This year’s ECTRIMS conference saw a record-breaking 1,985 abstract submissions, the majority of which were poster presentations spanning topics as diverse as immune mechanisms and remyelination, symptom management approaches, imaging techniques, biomarker discovery, and findings from clinical trials, to name a few. In this post, I’d like to highlight just a few of the posters I came across that focused on how factors like diet, physical activity, mood and fatigue can play a role in the lives of people living with MS and allied diseases.

Poster hall at ECTRIMS 2016

Poster hall at ECTRIMS 2016

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Targeting remyelination: A new chapter in MS therapies?

Ever since disease-modifying therapies emerged onto the scene in the mid-1990s, suppression of damaging inflammation and prevention of the entry of harmful immune cells into the central nervous system (CNS) has formed the backbone of MS treatment. In more recent years, the dialogue has shifted to the topic of remyelination – in other words, coercing the body’s innate repair system to rebuild the myelin damaged during MS. This topic continues to be an unmet need in MS and is receiving a lot of attention at this year’s ECTRIMS conference, where the leaders in remyelination research have converged to share their perspectives and latest findings on myelin repair.

Image credits: Desmazieres et al. J Neurosci. 2014

Image credits: Desmazieres et al. J Neurosci. 2014

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What can imaging tell us about the course of MS disease?

photoThis morning at ECTRIMS we heard from several researchers and clinicians about the use of imaging as a tool to predict disease outcomes in MS. Over the last few days we saw results from studies repeatedly demonstrating that imaging is a strong predictor of:

  • The development of MS in those who exhibit early signs
  • The development of disability (or worsening of disease)

Imaging has been heralded as the strongest predictor of disease outcomes in MS, and longer studies are not able to pinpoint the long term predictive nature of imaging measures.

Dr. Olga Ciccarelli from University College London presented an overview of the different imaging tools and patterns that can predict risk of developing confirmed MS among those with clinically isolated syndrome (CIS). She referenced studies showing that, after a 20 year follow up, those individuals with CIS who had an abnormal MRI (many lesions displayed on scan) had an 82% risk of developing MS, whereas those with a normal MRI had a 21% risk of MS.

She also noted that T2 lesions, which are seen via a specific MRI method that shows tissue damage and inflammation, are a strong prognostic factor, meaning they can predict disease, which was demonstrated in a paper published in 2015 in Brain by Dr. Mar Tintoré from Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona, Spain.

Additional studies were presented showing that people with early signs of MS who also exhibited spinal cord lesions were more likely to develop MS. Dr. Ciccarelli published similar work showing that spinal cord lesions and spinal cord atrophy (tissue damage) can predict levels of disability after 5 years in patients with CIS. She is currently working on the longest follow-up study of patients with CIS (30 years), which will reveal the strength of imaging as a predictive tool for MS disease and add to our current knowledge around risk models for MS.

We also heard from Dr. Tintoré who has done significant work on monitoring CIS patients over the long term. She has been leading a large, real-world, prospectively acquired (acquiring data over time) CIS cohort that has enabled her to identify predictors of EDSS changes, treatment responses, and other disease outcomes. She presented data from her cohort study showing that, after 15 years of follow up, those with CIS who had more than 10 lesions observed on their first (baseline) MRI had an 85% risk of  MS, compared to 19% for those who had no lesions on their first MRI. She found that a lower proportion of patients developed accumulation of disability after 10 and 15 years, and early treatment appeared to have prevented the buildup if disability.

Dr. Wallace Brownlee, also from University College London, presented his study on the prognostic strength of imaging in terms of predicting a secondary progressive disease course in those with CIS. He initially enrolled 178 patients with CIS, of which 164 were followed up for a total of 15 years. After the 15 year follow up period ended, 57% of patients had relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), and 15% had secondary progressive MS (SPMS). He noted that those with CIS who had spinal cord and T1 brain lesions had a higher probability of developing SPMS, meaning those imaging markers are strong predictors of transition to SPMS.

As imaging techniques become more refined, and studies better designed and include larger numbers of people to infer more definitive conclusions, clinicians are becoming better equipped to foretell the outcome of one’s MS over the short and long term. This is especially important for those with the earliest signs of MS as deciding the most appropriate treatment course for those individuals can influence how their disease unfolds in the future

Stay turned for most updates from ECTRIMS, and follow me on Twitter where I will posting live from the sessions throughout the day!

Multi-million dollar grants announced at ECTRIMS by the International Progressive MS Alliance marks major milestone in progressive MS research


Professor Alan Thompson announces the recipients of the International Progressive MS Alliance Collaborative Network Awards at ECTRIMS

How quickly time flies. A little over a year ago, the MS Society announced the recipients of the International Progressive MS Alliance planning awards, the first step in an unprecedented global effort designed to forge collaborations between people of all research backgrounds and scientific expertise around the world, who together have the capacity to speed up the development of treatments for progressive MS. Each of the 11 grant recipients developed proposals for larger-scale projects aimed at addressing the most complex scientific and healthcare challenges in progressive MS. The proposals were submitted for another round of reviews, after which three projects would be selected for €4.2 million (or $6 million) in funding.

Today at an ECTRIMS press conference, The Alliance announced the successful awardees of the €4.2 million Collaborative Network Award grants. The three selected multi-national research networks will tackle critical gaps facing progressive MS research, including the development of effective drugs for countering disease progression, the discovery of new biomarkers that can help researchers measure progression and the response to treatments, and the design of faster and smaller clinical trials that will cut down on the time needed to bring new therapies from the drawing board to people living with MS.

I’m happy to note that one the grant recipients is from Canada: Dr. Douglas Arnold from the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University. Additionally, several other Canadian researchers were among the collaborators listed for all three grants, including Dr. Jack Antel from McGill University and Dr. Alexandre Prat from the University of Montreal.

Read on for descriptions of the selected studies.

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World’s brightest minds gather in London for largest MS conference

img_5527The MS Society of Canada’s research team has arrived in the vibrant city of London, England to attend the 32nd Congress of the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS). The ECTRIMS Congress is the largest international meeting devoted to scientific research and health management of multiple sclerosis, and each year the list of topics and number of participants grows.

In May of this year ECTRIMS announced that a record breaking 1,985 abstracts were submitted for the Congress, representing a broad a range of topics such as neuroprotection, advance imaging techniques, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, cognitive treatments, comorbidities, and new directions in progressive MS research. Selected abstracts will be presented throughout the week at poster sessions (researchers showcase their data on posters and engage in discussions) and scientific sessions (presentations that are delivered to a larger audience). The conference also includes smaller workshops and presentation sessions for nurses, junior neurologists in training, and media.

ECTRIMS is a great platform for announcing breaking news in MS research and treatment, and provides an opportunity for researchers, clinicians and trainees to share the freshest data from their laboratories, in addition to networking, taking part in educational workshops, hearing about updates in other research areas, and collaborating with MS professionals across geographical regions, industries and expertise.

This year the research team will be delivering live updates throughout the week via Twitter (@Dr_KarenLee), Facebook (Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada), and my blog. We are excited to hear about the latest advances, particularly in progressive MS where researchers are on the cusp of a new era of disease-modifying therapies and symptom-improving interventions.

Stay tuned for more updates and feel free to leave and questions or comments below!


MS vaccines: Thinking outside the box for new treatments

At its heart, multiple sclerosis is believed to occur when rogue immune cells attack myelin – a fatty coating that surrounds nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. But what if these deviant immune cells could be taught to leave myelin alone? Or the immune system reprogrammed to fight these cells off?  This is what researchers are hoping to do as they bring an age-old technology, vaccines, to bear in the treatment of MS.

When you think of vaccination, your mind probably goes to the shots you received as a child that were meant to protect you against certain bacterial or viral infections. Today, scientists are trying to adapt this same technology (with a few tweaks of course) to help stop autoimmune attacks.  In the last few years a number of MS-focused vaccines have shown promising results in early phase clinical trials, and with each success the technology is closer than ever to offering a viable treatment option.

Source: James Gathany [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: James Gathany [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Getting personal with a promising treatment approach to MS

Multiple sclerosis is a deeply personal disease. No two people experience MS in exactly the same way, and while the underlying autoimmune event that attacks myelin is consistently at the core of the MS disease process, the signs, symptoms, and progression of the disease can vary enormously from person to person.

In the same vein, every person living with MS responds to treatments in her or his own way. A little over twenty years ago, there were no therapies available that could alter the course of the disease and reduce the number of relapses and brain lesions; today, 11 disease-modifying therapies are approved for relapsing-remitting MS in Canada with several others in the pipeline. A wide selection of disease-modifying therapies is ideal in that it means more options that can manage the individual needs of people living with MS. Despite the crucial advancements in treatment options for MS, some people do not respond to the treatments that are available, which again speaks to the varying nature of the disease.

Jennifer Molson, a participants in the Canadian BMT Trial (Credit: The Ottawa Hospital)

Jennifer Molson, a participants in the Canadian BMT Trial (Credit: The Ottawa Hospital)

Ongoing research is helping to expand the arsenal of treatment options for MS, while placing greater emphasis on a more personalized approach to treating the disease. The publication of the results from the Canadian Bone Marrow Transplantation (BMT) Trial in The Lancet represents the culmination of an extensive and collaborative effort funded by the MS Society of Canada’s affiliated Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation (MSSRF) to identify a potential treatment for MS involving stem cells. The trial involved a procedure in which selected volunteers living with MS were given high-dose chemotherapy to dismantle the disease-causing immune system, followed by transfusion of their own stem cells to rebuild a healthy immune system that no longer attacks myelin. Given the risks associated with the procedure, individuals who were selected for the trial were those experiencing highly aggressive, inflammatory relapsing-remitting MS that did not respond to available treatments.

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