The Gordon Conference: Advancing Myelin Research

In my former career as a neuroscientist, I studied synapses ― nerve connectors that permit nerve cells to pass electrical or chemical signals to another cell. I learned how important it was to understand how the nervous system functions normally, before you can figure out what goes wrong during the course of a disease.

If we are going to repair damage to the myelin casings that protect nerve connections in MS, we have to know everything possible about the biology of how myelin is normally made. That means studying the cells that make myelin, the genes that instruct them, the molecules they interact with, and the proteins they make. This requires the whole scientific community working together – and that’s what happens at the Myelin Gordon Research Conference, which I recently attended in Ventura, CA.

This conference gets many experts from across the myelin field together – 200 scientists and clinicians, from academia, industry, and the nonprofit arena – so that they can share and coordinate their myelin research efforts. I like the informal and open spirit of the conference; anything can be presented, even unpublished data, without concern of it getting released prematurely. This atmosphere leads to true collaboration on areas of research where there are unmet needs.

Very promising research was presented on high-throughput screening ― a technology that allows researchers to screen thousands of drugs at once for their capabilities. This is a key technologic development that can speed drug discovery exponentially. A couple of groups are working on screening thousands of FDA-approved therapies for their ability to drive myelin repair. Some of these treatments are approved to treat very different diseases so they might not otherwise be considered for repair in MS. Yet, if the research holds up, we will be many steps ahead of the game since these therapies are already on the market.

Another thing I really I like about the Gordon Conference is that it welcomes young scientists. In fact, they recently started having a meeting just before the main conference that features talks by postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, providing an opportunity for young researchers to deliver their first presentations of their work.

This year, the meeting for young scientists was chaired by J. Bradley Zuchero, PhD, of Stanford University, who has just received a Career Transition Fellowship Award from the National MS Society. He is working in the lab of expert neurobiologist Ben Barres, PhD. Often in research there are questions that go unanswered for a long time, until technology catches up. Brad’s research is one such example of this. He is studying the ‘simple’ question of how myelin wraps around nerve fibers. But he is using new tools that will help him to understand the scaffolding that allows myelin to wrap around nerve cells. We may discover new clues for repairing myelin in people with MS if we gain a deeper understanding of how it forms.

This meeting was not exclusive to MS – researchers talked about other diseases involving myelin and nerve cells.  Collaborating on this wide spectrum is absolutely necessary if we are to move research forward faster and find solutions that change the lives of everyone with MS.

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Claude Schofield, PhD

Dr. Claude Schofield is Director of Discovery Research at the National MS Society. He began his career as a biomedical researcher, focused on the nervous system. He research has been published in Journal of Neuroscience, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, and Neural Development.