MS Research Australia grants to talented Melbourne teams

MS Research Australia has announced researching funding to support and strengthen the crucial international collaborations needed for this to happen. Congratulations to staff from the University of Melbourne for being funded in several key areas.

Successful researchers are;

  • Dr Junhua Xiao – Awarded a Project Grant of $211,806 for 3 years
  • Professor Mary Galea - Awarded a Project Grant of $206,743 for 3 years
  • Dr Simon Murray - Awarded a Project Grant of $143,400 for 3 years
  • Dr Steve Simpson, Jr - Awarded an Incubator Grant of $ 23,271  for 1 year
  • Dr Ai-Lan Nguyen -  Awarded a Travel Award of $12,500 for 1 year

This year, new and exciting topics are being funded: an increased number of strong grants funded in the area of nutrition and lifestyle factors in MS, an area of significant interest to many in the MS community. As well as a broad range of projects targeting myelin repair and new methods to better track disease progression so that clinicians can improve the clinical testing of MS medications for progressive forms of MS. Projects that will bring us a deeper understanding of how our genes contribute to MS and projects that help to find methods to predict treatment responses are also included.

The projects:

How nerve cells influence myelin repair in the brain
Dr Junhua Xiao will investigate whether it impacts on the number of myelin producing cells known as oligodendrocytes, and whether it protects against the breakdown of nerve fibres.

In MS, the immune system damages the myelin or fatty protective cover of nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord, leaving the nerve cells vulnerable to breaking down. The body’s natural ability to repair myelin is often insufficient, and the nerve fibres remain vulnerable to further break down. While there have been a number of advances in the treatment of MS, they mostly target the immune system to prevent attacks against the myelin. However, such therapies do not directly help regenerate any damage that might persist. Therefore there is a clear need to develop ways to enhance the repair of myelin. In this project the scientists will be looking at a protein called TrkB which is made in the nerve cells in the brain and seems to be important in the remyelination process. Using a combination of ground-breaking scientific approaches, this project will look at what happens to the remyelination process in cells in the presence and absence of TrkB. It is important to determine precisely how TrkB promotes remyelination because this will indicate potential new drug targets to promote remyelination in MS.

Using new technologies to track MS progression
Professor Mary Galea has been funded to use new technologies to track changes to walking and balance in patients with MS. Wearable sensors will be attached to the torso and legs to measure progression of disease over time. These devices can also be used to develop a new measure of walking stability called the Local Divergence Exponent, which the team believe might be possible to match up with changes to the brain and spinal cord shown on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Medications currently available for MS aim to keep people free from relapses and slow progression of their disease. However, current tests used in clinics for walking and balance are not sensitive enough to pick up some of the more subtle signs of disease activity. Using laboratory-based measuring systems, Professor Galea and her team have shown that they can detect subtle changes in walking and balance in people with MS, even when there isn’t any obvious sign of disease progression.

Better ways are urgently needed to monitor disease progression so that we can test the effectiveness of medications for progressive MS and develop ways to measure these small changes in the clinical setting to adjust the management and treatment of MS for individuals. This project will mean that clinicians can determine the comparative effectiveness of existing treatments, and adapt them to improve outcomes for people with MS.

Promoting myelin repair in the brain
Dr Simon Murray and his team have identified that a growth factor produced in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), promotes myelination during early development of the brain. They believe it may also be useful to help maintain and repair myelin after injury in the adult brain. Dr Murray and his team have been using a compound which copies the actions of BDNF and have shown that it promotes myelin renewal in basic laboratory models of MS. This project will take the next step in this line of research to see if the compound can promote myelin repair in an environment which more closely mirrors the situation we see in people with MS. They will use a more complex model of myelin damage: where spontaneous remyelination does not occur and where there have been repeated episodes of myelin loss, reflecting the conditions that might occur in people with MS. The outcome of this project will help identify whether this compound might ultimately be useful as a drug to stimulate myelin repair in people with MS. Reviewed by Tanja

Feasibility study of recruitment and retention in the MS lifestyle management intervention trial
Dr Steve Simpson will carry out a pilot study, to test whether it is practical to conduct a clinical trial into the effects of multiple lifestyle modifications on clinical outcomes in MS.

The MS community is very interested in the role of modifiable lifestyle factors in MS as it represents something that can empower individuals in the management of their own long-term health. While much is already known about the role of lifestyle factors in the risk of developing MS, there is still a lack of understanding as to whether these factors can impact progression and disease course in MS. These lifestyle modifications include an integrated program incorporating a healthy diet, sufficient physical activity, adequate sun exposure, appropriate supplement use, non-smoking and stress reduction. Dr Simpson is also interested in assessing what characteristics might indicate if a person is likely to participate and what characteristics make them more likely to stick to any given routine.

MRI statistical analysis collaboration
Dr Ai-Lan Nguyen has been funded a travel scholarship to study the differences in the ways that radiologists take images with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. MRI plays a crucial role in the diagnosis and treatment of MS. Being the only way to locate and identify MS lesions in the brain, and for monitoring long term disease activity and progression, MRI is a truly powerful technique. However, its potential may not be fully realised, and further research and development is necessary to improve disease monitoring.

The Clinical Outcomes Research (CORe) Unit at the University of Melbourne has established a number of strategic partnerships with Universities globally. This travel grant will enable CORe to establish a student exchange program with the University of Genoa, where there is strong expertise in MS clinical trials, focusing on MRIs. Dr Nguyen will travel to Genoa to study the differences in the ways that radiologists take images with MRI machines so that she can then develop a uniform way to analyse MRIs in MS regardless of where they were taken.

A full list of all 21 grant recipients of the MS Research Australia research grants can be found at msra.org.au