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Memorial hosts multiple sclerosis researchers from across country

Multiple Sclerosis researchers from across Canada listen to a lecture at the three-day EndMS Summer School held at Memorial University in St. John’s this week.
Multiple Sclerosis researchers from across Canada listen to a lecture at the three-day EndMS Summer School held at Memorial University in St. John’s this week.

A group of young researchers from across Canada gathered in St. John’s this week to work together and share their research on multiple sclerosis (MS).

The three-day event is called EndMS Summer School.

This is the third year the event has been held, and the first time it has been held in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That is appropriate, as this province has the highest incident rate of MS diagnosis in Canada.

In fact, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada website, Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, with an estimated 100,000 Canadians living with the disease. While it is most often diagnosed in young adults aged 15 to 40, younger children and older adults are also diagnosed with the disease.

Angelica Asis, manager of research information and partnerships with the MS Society of Canada, said the national group funds the summer school and the accompanying Sprint program. She said the original funding was to cover the programs for three years, and this is the third year of that funding.

“We are looking to secure more funding because it has been so successful,” Asis said. “The Sprint program is the research-accelerating program these participants take part in.

“Selected young MS researchers, they apply, and they get the opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary project (in the Sprint program), so they work with young researchers from other fields, they form a group and work with a mentor who is a senior person in the field, and they work on a project they are not familiar with. It’s meant to kind of broaden their knowledge.

“Working together can be difficult and that’s what you learn. It’s all about collaboration, and they present at summer school and take part in workshops, lectures and networking.”

Michelle Ploughman, Canada research chair in rehabilitation, neuroplasticity and brain recovery at Memorial University, said the young researchers compete for 40 available seats at the summer school, with stringent requirements to be met.

“These are the future Canadian researchers in MS,” Ploughman said. “What we do is bring them together and try to cement them as a group. We give them tool kits to be successful in their careers, so this year our theme is on collaborations and partnerships because we are not going to move this field forward unless one lab is speaking to another lab, and that you are working together.”

The MS Society of Canada website describes MS as an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord and optic nerves). The disease attacks myelin, the protective covering of the nerves, causing inflammation and often damaging the myelin.

MS is unpredictable and can cause symptoms such as extreme fatigue, lack of co-ordination, weakness, tingling, impaired sensation, vision problems, bladder problems, cognitive impairment and mood changes.

Asis noted that research in MS has evolved very fast.

“One great example is 20 years ago we had no drugs for MS and now there are 13 approved in Canada,” she said. “So that’s huge. That’s clinical trials, the approval process which takes, so the fact we have 13 means that there was something working quite well, with solid research and good collaboration. It provides people with more options for treatment.”

Ploughman, along with colleague Craig Moore, has been working on projects intended to make Memorial University a hub for MS research.

“Craig and I built a research project called the Hit MS Project and what it does — working with Dr. Mark Stefanelli — is we try to recruit every single person who comes into his clinic and say, can we measure your blood, the inflammation that’s in your system, your walking, can we stimulate your brain to see how well it is working, etc. We put all this into a database and run a map.

“We have 160 people in the database now and we will map and give each person like a template. This is a footprint of where you are right now with your MS and then, by our sensitive measures, we can map that every year. In maybe five years we can use this data and say what accounts for the fact that some people can get MS and they can live 25 years and be well, and other people can get it and go downhill and have significant weakness and thinking problems. So, why is it one person does really well and another doesn’t? Hopefully, it will pay off in looking at the data. If we know what makes you progress, we will be able to target it then.”

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