Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. It is considered an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheath. This results in MS attacks such as loss of vision, loss of coordination and sensation, and difficulty walking. It is often followed by a progressive accumulation of disability.
Approximately 2.5 million people worldwide live with MS, suggesting around 200 new diagnoses each week. Typically appearing in young adulthood, the disease is more prominent in women. Although the scientific community has made significant progress in its understanding of MS—and, for the first time, there are FDA-approved drugs to treat it—there is no treatment for progressive forms of the disease. Currently, drugs that decrease attacks are only partially effective and may have side effects.
The Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases is dedicated to combating MS and helping millions of patients reclaim their well-being.
“There is no question that we can accelerate a search for the cure of MS. We have the technology. We have the opportunity to take chances and to make new discoveries. And I’m confident that we’re going to succeed.” —Howard L. Weiner, MD, Co-director,
Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases
For information about MS services at BWH, visit: http://www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/neurology/MSCenter.aspx
EXPLORING THE GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION IN MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS
Existing research has suggested a connection between the gut microbiome—the collection of microorganisms that live in the intestine—and brain inflammation. But how the two are linked and how diet may influence this connection has remained largely unknown, until now. In a new line of study led by Francisco Quintana, PhD, researchers have shown for the first time that changes in diet and the gut microbiome may influence the activity of astrocytes—star-shaped cells that reside in the brain and spinal cord—which play a key role in controlling inflammation and neurodegeneration, two processes closely tied to MS. The study, published in Nature Medicine in August 2016, may point to potential new therapeutic targets, as well as biomarkers for diagnosis and monitoring disease progression.
UNRAVELING THE MYSTERIES OF NEUROLOGIC DISEASE IN WOMEN
Although sex differences are pervasive in neurologic diseases, they represent an underserved area of research where many key questions remain unanswered. Researchers at the center aim to help fill this critical knowledge gap through an exciting new focus that will build upon research already underway by our expert investigators. This new effort is a response to the unique challenges faced by women, who often find themselves at the intersection of patient and caregiver. For example, the new PREG-MS study led by Maria Houtchens, MD, aims to create the first evidence-based guidelines to improve how we care for pregnant women with MS and their babies. Research will center on several critical areas, including the underlying biological mechanisms behind the different risk profiles of women and men; identifying the most significant gaps in our understanding; and how to best capitalize on this emerging understanding to develop treatments and services specifically for women. Center investigators will collaborate closely with expert colleagues from across BWH and beyond, harnessing a wealth of multidisciplinary expertise and advancing a comprehensive approach to these complex issues.
PARTNERSHIP ANNOUNCED WITH GOOGLE LIFE SCIENCES
A team of researchers from the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases led by Howard Weiner, MD, and Tanuja Chitnis, MD, are partnering with Google Life Sciences to learn more about the biologic, physiological, environmental, and behavioral factors that influence a patient’s experience with multiple sclerosis (MS) as the disease progresses. Wearable devices that measure an individual’s activity have become mainstream. This technology has the potential to collect robust data that could inform research and clinical care for specific diseases, including MS. The study, named SysteMS, will pilot wearable sensors developed by the life sciences team at Google that are designed to continuously measure movement, activity, and vital signs. Building upon the renowned CLIMB study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), the study will enroll approximately 2,000 patients. This novel technology has the potential to inform clinicians and researchers about the day-to-day abilities and challenges of their patients, and offer insights toward new treatment targets and improved patient care.
FROM MS TO BRAIN TUMORS: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY DISCOVERY
Glioblastomas, one of the most deadly forms of brain tumors, are known to suppress the immune system, making them exceptionally difficult to treat. The immune system also plays a role in MS, and MS researchers in Dr. Weiner’s lab have identified a regulatory cell that plays an important role in down regulating the immune system. They found that these regulatory cells, which are present in abnormally high quantities around glioblastomas in animal models, can be identified by the expression of a peptide called LAP (Latency Associated Peptide) on the surface of the cells. LAP-positive regulatory cells have been shown to promote cancer malignancy and immune suppression in other types of cancer. With this in mind, researchers at the center have developed a highly specific antibody that targets LAP-positive regulatory cells and removes them from the body. When Dr. Weiner and his colleagues used this antibody to treat glioblastomas in animal models, the results were significant: immune response was restored, tumor growth arrested, and survival time increased. These promising results have led the team at the center to plan a clinical trial with this antibody.