I want to cure MS

As someone who cares about people with multiple sclerosis, getting the chance to attend the National MS Society Tykeson Fellows Conference is like winning the lottery. Who wouldn’t want to spend four days with brilliant scientists devoted to finding solutions for people with MS? Nov. 6 to 9, in Denver, Colo., I got to do just that.
The Society attracts promising young investigators and doctors into the MS field through a variety of fellowship and scholar awards to ease their transition into independent careers. Many prominent MS researchers making breakthroughs today began their professional lives as Society trainees, and the Tykeson Fellows Conference is an opportunity for these scientists to connect, collaborate and be inspired by their peers who are working to find answers about MS. I know I’m inspired by the people I met. 
I sat down with Haley Titus-Mitchell, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and she wore a bold, orange dress and a bright smile. At age 21, she wrote the following words on a piece of paper: “I want to cure MS.” Though it was an academic exercise, that statement steered Titus-Mitchell from a potential career in neurosurgery toward MS repair research. She has volunteered with the Ohio Valley Chapter for eight years and serves on the board of trustees. Her Walk MS team ― Titus’ Trotters ― is for her mother, Terri, who was diagnosed at age 26 and now lives with secondary-progressive MS. Titus-Mitchell’s mother ran a hospital lab in Columbus, Ohio, and her first symptom appeared when she suddenly couldn’t see through her microscope. Now, Titus-Mitchell, motivated by her mom, is focused on finding ways to turn on myelin-making cells to ramp up the brain’s natural repair potential.
“Science is tough; you really have to want to do it,” said Dimitry Ofengeim, Ph.D., with Harvard University. Over a bowl of oatmeal the second morning of the conference, Ofengeim, a Society postdoctoral fellow, discussed what it was like to be raised in a family of scientists. His grandfather was an organic chemistry professor, and summer vacation for Ofengeim meant pouring over biology and chemistry books with grandpa. Ofengeim is looking into cell death in the nervous system and how that process might be regulated as a protective strategy for MS. “There are so many ups and downs in research, and you have to be able to endure those down periods. But the good days? You live for the good days.”
Ofengeim illustrates the kind of life many Society fellows lead. As Danielle Harlow, Ph.D., and postdoctoral fellow from the University of Colorado School of Medicine said, “It’s not a job. It’s not even a career. It’s a life.” It’s not an easy life. Our fellows spend long, sometimes isolating hours in their labs, day after day. Hard work much more often leads to failed experiments than successful ones, and they wonder whether they’ll ever land a position that will allow them to continue their work.
I spoke with a young woman over dinner the first evening of the conference ― Megan Beier, Ph.D., a rehabilitation psychologist who’s being trained through a Society mentor-based postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington MS Center. One of her many projects is assessing how exercise can improve cognition in people with MS. Her findings, and those of her colleague, Narineh Havtoonian, Ph.D., also a Society fellow, demonstrate that people who achieve significant improvement in physical fitness ― measured by both strength and endurance ― also show an increase in speed of information processing and executive functioning. (Executive functioning helps us do things like plan a birthday party, organize a closet and figure out how long it might take to get home during rush hour.) Beier said, “My clinical work informs my research. How can you know what to look at unless you’re with the people who live with MS every day?”
Gordon Meares, Ph.D., a Society career transition fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is studying astrocytes and the mechanisms involved in neuroinflammation ― the immune storm that happens in MS. Astrocytes are beautiful, star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord. They support and protect neurons ― the body’s tin can telephones that transmit information through electrochemical signals. Meares shared what a fellowship from the Society means to him and his work. “It allows me to ask the questions that interest me,” he said. “To have the funding to do that is amazing.”
I also got to hang out with Pavan Bhargava, M.D., who said, “At the end of the day, you want to treat patients and feel like you made a difference in their lives.” Bhargava is a Sylvia Lawry physician fellow, which means he receives special training to conduct MS clinical trials. While his passion for patient care is obvious, so is his excitement for the trial in which he’s involved as a secondary investigator. Fifteen centers across the U.S. are recruiting, or beginning to recruit, people with relapsing-remitting MS for a vitamin D supplementation study. They’re comparing the effects of taking low or higher doses of vitamin D daily, added to standard therapy. Bhargava wants to know: does supplementation at a high level reduce relapse rate and MRI activity? It could mean a sunnier future for people with MS.
I would have argued before attending the Tykeson Fellows Conference that the Society’s fellowship programs are an important investment in the future of MS care and research. Now, having spent time with these and lots of other young people dedicated to uncovering the science behind MS, I can say that our investment is absolutely critical in order to change the world for people living with this chronic disease. Our fellows are the hands doing the experiments and providing the first line of care for patients. And they are the people who will be responsible for the great MS discoveries of tomorrow. 
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Anna Kucera

Anna Kucera is the marketing and public relations director for the National MS Society, Upper Midwest Chapter.