ACTRIMS 2017: Putting the microbes in our gut under the microscope

Each person’s gastro-intestinal system is home to trillions of bacteria collectively known as the gut microbiota. These tiny creatures are essential partners in good health, and in less than a decade MS researchers have gone from considering the gut microbiota to be a curiosity to gathering evidence that disruption of the gut’s natural bacterial balance is linked to MS. A powerful method of studying the gut microbiota is to investigate the gut microbiome – the genetic composition of the microbiota. Unresolved questions about the gut microbiome persist, such as: Do people with MS have different microbiome “fingerprints” than people without MS? Does the gut microbiome play a functional role in modifying MS risk and/or disease course? Does the gut microbiome represent a potential therapeutic target in MS? Leaders in the field of MS and gut microbiome research here at ACTRIMS 2017 presented some of the latest findings that tackle these questions.

Wild garden of the gut bacteria (Credits: Nicola Fawcett; Wikimedia Commons)

Wild garden of the gut bacteria (Credits: Nicola Fawcett; Wikimedia Commons)

 

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ACTRIMS 2017: What we know (and don’t know) about dietary factors and MS

The interaction between dietary factors and MS can be a tough nut to crack. On one hand, there is mounting evidence to show that certain nutrients and dietary factors can influence immune regulation and potentially modify the risk of MS or its disease course. On the other hand, dietary factors are notoriously challenging to study in a controlled clinical trial setting; diet trials are difficult to design, results can be influenced by a plethora of other factors (including physical activity, socioeconomic status, certain lifestyle habits, etc.), and individuals often find it challenging to adhere to the intervention plan. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal of high caliber research taking place that’s chipping away at the mysteries surrounding the relationship between certain dietary factors and MS risk and disease course. At this year’s ACTRIMS Forum, several experts in the field presented some of the latest data on this file.

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Genetics and environmental/behavioural factors top the agenda at ACTRIMS Forum 2017

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Bringing scientists and clinicians together under one roof to share knowledge and forge collaborations is a key stage in moving MS research forward. This year’s Americas Committee for Treatment & Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) Forum kicks off today in Orlando, Florida. The research team is on site to absorb the latest research and clinical findings in the field and distill the information down into digestible, take-home messages for our readers.

The theme of this year’s forum is “Environmental Factors, Genetics and Epigenetics in MS Susceptibility and Clinical Course”. Not surprisingly, we’ll be hearing a lot about hot topics like interactions between MS and diet, why women are more susceptible to MS than men, the role of viral infections and the gut microbiome in MS, and new insights from in-depth genome-wide analyses to pinpoint genetic variants associated with MS. Many of these topics have grown from niche topics on the fringes of scientific investigation into comprehensive and evolving fields of study in their own right, so we’re looking forward to some fresh and exciting insights into how our genes, our environment, and our behaviours can influence MS.

#actrims2017 attendees are in for a packed schedule over the next few days.

#actrims2017 attendees are in for a packed schedule over the next few days.

Stay tuned for more updates on #actrims2017 over the next few days, both here on the blog and on Twitter at @Dr_KarenLee.

Happy Holidays! Here are my top research moments of 2016!

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)

As the holidays quickly approach us I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the incredible year that the MS community has had in terms of advances in research.

This year, the MS Society of Canada and MS Scientific Research Foundation announced the publication of a landmark clinical trial that they jointly funded over 15 years ago. The trial, led by The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Mark Freedman and Dr. Harold Atkins, propelled Canada to the forefront of stem cell research for MS, and is considered one of the most successful stem cell trials for MS to date.

Jennifer Molson, one of the patients who received the procedure that involved immunoablation and transplantation of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells, has become a fervent advocate for stem cell research and continues to publically share her journey throughout and after the clinical trial. Publication of the results of the trial has heightened the MS community’s understanding of the applications that stem cells have for MS, and paved the way for ongoing research that will hopefully lead to stem cell treatments that can be broadly used to treat all types of MS.

This year the MS Society awarded funding for two new projects focused on translation of progressive MS research findings into potential treatments for people living with progressive disease, but also those who have relapsing-remitting MS who are at risk of transitioning to progressive MS. These projects involved collaboration with the Centre for Drug Research in Development, a non-profit drug develop research centre based on Vancouver that possess an inerdiplinary drug development team and fully integrated research facility.

Throughout the year the MS community voiced a deep interest in understanding the effects of environment and lifestyle on the cause, development and severity of MS. We heard questions such as, “does low vitamin D increase risk for MS?”, and, “if I have MS will taking vitamin D help to manage my disease and symptoms?” People also wanted to know if diet and physical activity can help to treat MS or curtail symptoms like fatigue, mobility impairment, spasticity and pain.

To address these questions and gaps, the MS Society announced funding for three wellness-focused research studies, which will involve a team-based approach between academic researchers and community-based organizations. We also awarded a $15,000 grant to a group of students from the University of Waterloo in Ontario named Team TBS (pictured above) that would enable them to develop a wearable device that transmits information about a person’s MS symptoms to an app. The goal is to use the data that is stored in the app to identify any trends or changes that could help one’s healthcare team make informed treatment decisions. The group is nearly done the project and is looking to launch the new technology in 2017.

Additionally, in March of this year, the MS Society brought together the world’s leading experts in vitamin D and MS, and hosted a one-day meeting in March in which they discussed the latest data on the relationship between vitamin D and MS. Based on their discussions, the expert panel developed a series of guidelines on vitamin D testing and intake that is currently under review before they are translated into recommendations for the general public. The hope is that these recommendations will not only inform people affected by MS how much vitamin D they can safely take and whether the data suggests that it can help with their disease, but also provide a more clear understanding of what vitamin D is and the role it plays in MS.

This year the International Progressive MS Alliance announced $18 million in funding for three large projects that will involve global networks of MS researchers. One of these projects will be led by Canadian imaging pioneer Dr. Doug Arnold from McGill University. I am very excited to see whether these projects lead and am confident that the collaborative effort that is being undertaken by each group is the best way to go in terms of expediting the search for new treatments for progressive MS.

Finally, this year could not have ended on a better note than with the 2016 endMS Conference. While it was a busy time of planning and preparations, I am sure I speak on behalf of my MS Society colleagues when I say that it was an amazing conference! I enjoyed hearing about the latest research in the MS, while interacting with MS researchers and clinicians who seemed just as enthusiastic. I saw many familiar faces, but also a lot of new faces which is encouraging as it tells me that the field is expanding and new trainees and investigators are joining the fight to endMS.

I was truly impressed by the intellect, innovation, maturity, professionalism and passion that was evident in each trainee platform and poster presentation that I witnessed throughout the week. I also enjoyed hearing the trainees answer questions from senior researchers and participate in lively discussions during the panels. Another favourite moment of the conference for me was HEAR MS Day. Over 70 people affected by MS came together to meet with the trainees and talk about what MS research means to them and what the impact of research is on their lives. The exchange of dialogue, stories, and perspectives around the room was inspiring for all of us who took part in it, and I hope that we can do more of these types of interactive workshops in the future!

These are only a few of the many noteworthy research moments that have made 2016 an exceptional year for research. It brings me a lot of hope to know that the MS research community is working hard to answer the complex questions about MS that still remain, while working with the clinicians to develop and provide tools for earlier detection, individualized treatment, and comprehensive care. I look forward to seeing the progress of these studies in 2017, and await the next major advances that will move the needle in our search for a cure.

On behalf of the MS Society I wish all of you Happy Holidays!

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

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Canada’s largest MS research conference hosted by the MS Society of Canada begins today!

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The research team next to a beautiful tapestry created by Elizabeth Jameson

Today marks the first day of the 2016 endMS Conference in Toronto, ON. When I think back to the first conference hosted in 2007 in Banff, Alberta, I am truly amazed at how much this meeting has grown over the years. What began as a forum for trainees to present and gather feedback on their research, has expanded into a well-established scientific meeting that brings together over 200 MS researchers and clinicians from around the world. In fact, the endMS Conference is now the largest scientific conference focused on MS in Canada.

For those of you who are not familiar with the endMS Conference, it’s held every three years in different cities across Canada, and is hosted by the MS Society of Canada, endMS Research & Training Network, and MS Scientific Research Foundation. It’s a week-long meeting wherein researchers and clinicians come together and present the latest research findings, network and collaborate with other professionals in the field. Many great ideas come from face-to-face interactions among researchers, and so the MS Society is proud to be funding a forum that encourages this engagement, as well as provides young researchers the opportunity to form relationships with peers and meet senior MS research experts.

The 2016 endMS Conference program will include scientific presentations on topics such as cognition, progressive MS, repair, and inflammation, as well as poster presentations where researchers can visually display and answer questions about their research. There is also a day dedicated to people affected by MS where they will meet with trainees and exchange perspectives on how to incorporate the personal voice in research.

Stay tuned for live conference updates posted here, on my Twitter, and MS Society’s Facebook page!

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

Last week, I featured a team led by Dr. Ann Yeh from SickKids Hospital who was awarded one of three Hermès Canada | MS Society Wellness Research Innovation Grants to develop a physical activity app for children and adolescents living with MS. In the last part of this series, we’ll set our sights back on Saskatchewan and focus on Dr. Katherine Knox, Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who is working collaboratively with community innovator Dalene Newton, Director of Brain Health, Rehabilitation, and Interprofessional Practice, at Saskatoon Health Region. Their project is titled “Web-based physiotherapy in moderate to severe MS”.

Meet the Researcher: Katherine Knox

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Photo credit: Katherine Knox

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

As part of an ongoing series, I will be featuring interviews with the talented researchers and community innovators who were awarded one of three Hermès Canada | MS Society Wellness Research Innovation Grants to give you a glimpse at the amazing personalities and stories behind the research. Last week, I featured one of the teams from Saskatoon who have set out to study the impact of a Pilates program in people living with MS. This week, I’ll be featuring Dr. Ann Yeh,  who is an Associate Professor of Paediatrics at University of Toronto and Staff Neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children, and community innovator Adam McKillop, President and CEO of Kite & Canary, the digital design and development company tasked with developing a physical activity mobile application (app) for children and adolescents living with MS. The study is titled “Development and Usability Testing of the ATOMIC (Active Teens MultIple sClerosis) Mobile App to Increase Physical Activity Levels in Youth with Multiple Sclerosis”

Meet the Researcher: Dr. Ann Yeh

Dr. Ann Yeh

Dr. Ann Yeh

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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”

Meet the Researcher: Charity Evans

Photo credit: Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

Photo credit: Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

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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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