Advances in MS Progression and Nervous System Repair at the AAN

I’ve just returned from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) meeting in Boston, where thousands of the country’s leading neurologists shared their most recent research findings. I wanted to share the exciting advances being made towards better understanding and treatment of progressive MS and new research that is getting us closer to the repair of the nervous system and restoration of lost function.
This week, I had the honor and privilege of awarding the John Dystel Prize for MS Research to Professor Alan Thompson of University College London. Dr. Thompson has dedicated his career to improving the lives of people living with MS and has made significant contributions to the understanding of progressive MS, including in his role as the chief scientific advisor for the International Progressive MS Alliance. You can read more about his important contributions and the Dystel Prize here.
The Prize was awarded during a scientific session focused entirely on progressive MS, a first for the AAN meeting! Solving the problem of progressive MS is finally getting the attention of the research community. Hopefully, better solutions and eventually, a cure is sure to follow.
In addition to scientific lectures, researchers shared their latest findings on posters that were presented during sessions. I was encouraged by advances being made in advanced imaging (MRI) and other methods that help measure the activity of specialized immune cells in the brain called microglia. Microglia may damage nerves and lead to disability progression.
Check out this poster from a Society-funded research team at the University of Rochester. They have been looking at ways to prevent damage that occurs to synapses, which are the interfaces between nerve endings that relay messages throughout the nervous system.

They’ve tested a compound called URMC-099, which targets microglia in the brain. In mice with the MS-like disease EAE, they found that giving this compound de-activated microglia and protected synapses and nerve cell function in a part of the brain that is hard hit in MS—the hippocampus. There is still more work to be done before human testing, but I think it’s an interesting strategy to try to protect the nerves and prevent progression.
Another poster that got my attention was from Australian researchers, who are taking a completely different approach to treat progressive MS. For a long time, there have been hints that infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (which can cause mononucleosis) might trigger MS. These researchers took it a step further and speculated that EBV infected B-cells (white blood cells that help fight infections) might have a role in causing the damage responsible for MS.

They presented initial results from a small clinical trial that targeted these cells for destruction by amplifying the body’s natural immune response against virus-infected cells. The results suggest they might be on the right track, but we will need to wait for the study to be finished before knowing if this approach is worth pursuing.
Finding a way to repair and reverse the damage caused by MS is a high priority. Advances in our understanding of the roadblocks for repair and strategies for overcoming these roadblocks were presented at this year’s meeting.
A high-tech way to screen and discover compounds with possible myelin repair properties continues to bear fruit. At last year’s AAN, we heard about the myelin-repair potential of the antihistamine clemastine, which was identified through this screen. Now the same group at the University of California, San Francisco identified the potential of another group of compounds called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERM). The team identified an FDA-approved SERM and showed potent repair-promoting properties in both lab dishes and in mice with damaged myelin. Because this SERM is already used in humans, it will be pretty straightforward to start human clinical trials. I expect that we might see early results of human trials at next year’s AAN meeting (you can read more about the study here).
I hope this gives you a sense for the exciting research that was presented this week and hope that better solutions for MS are on the way. Be sure to read my colleague Kathy Zackowski’s blog on other research presented at the AAN.

A full summary of highlights will be posted on our website.
If you’re interested in exploring results that were presented at the AAN, browse here for more summaries
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Bruce Bebo, PhD

Bruce Bebo, PhD, is Executive Vice President, Research at the National MS Society, and was previously a research immunologist focusing on the influence of sex hormones on MS. He is a driven and passionate Society volunteer, successful fundraiser and advocate, fueled in part by the fact that his mother had MS.