Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada

Meet the Researchers

Dr. Anastassia Voronova

The Hospital for Sick Children

Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient

Area of Research: Nerve damage/repair

Project Title: Re-defining the niche of neural stem cells: Determining new roles for forebrain neuron secreted signals in cortical progenitor cell oligodendrogenesis

Learn more about Dr. Voronova

How did you become interested in MS research?

I have always been fascinated how a brain stem cell can develop into various types of cells, such as neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. MS can be viewed as a neurological disorder due to the loss of a particular type of neural cell, the oligodendrocyte. As this cell type is known to play a significant role in disease pathogenesis, I am interested in studying what environmental cues instruct a brain stem cell to make an oligodendrocyte, as opposed to any other cell types.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

I will be using the developing brain cortex of a mouse as my model system. In this system, I will answer the following questions: 1) do factors that are known to be secreted by the neurons originating in the cortex or in an adjacent structure, ventral forebrain, affect the formation of oligodendrocytes by cortical stem cells; and 2) identify novel neuron secreted factors that can affect the formation of oligodendrocytes.

How will your research impact individuals living or impacted with MS?

Our laboratory has recently identified a therapeutically important brain stem cell pathway for brain repair using common diabetes drug metformin by studying normal cortex development. Thus, it is important to study normal development of oligodendrocytes from brain stem cells in the context of potential pharmacological intervention to repair MS. The results from this project will directly impact the understanding of brain stem cell function in normal and diseased brain and will offer pharmacological bench to bedside translation for novel strategies of how to engage and recruit stem cells during MS for brain repair.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

I am very grateful to the MSSOC for devoting part of their budget to funding not only projects dealing with fundamental science of MS, but also to supporting trainees through scholar- and fellowships. Without the support by organizations like MSSOC it would not be possible for me to engage in MS research or to pursue my career in science. It is thus with the essential support by the MSSOC that I hope to define a novel and important MS research program that will directly impact the understanding of neural stem cell function in MS and will also allow me to establish myself as an independent principal investigator in Canada.

Curtis Benson

University of Alberta

Doctoral Studentship recipient

Area of Research: Symptom management/quality of life

Project Title: The effects of phenelzine and its derivative on motor and non-motor symptoms in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE)

Learn more about Mr. Benson

How did you become interested in MS research?

Throughout my undergraduate honors degree in Immunology from the University of Alberta, I was exposed to research in the field of immunology. This drove my interest in science and research. However, I wanted to apply what I had learned to understanding a disease state; in the hopes of helping people with that disease. So when I found an opportunity to research multiple sclerosis it seemed like the perfect fit.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

In the brain and spinal cord of people living with MS there are changes in the chemical messengers that signal between nerves. These chemical signals are called neurotransmitters and specifically I'm interested the neurotransmitters serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and GABA. In an animal model of MS these changes in chemical signaling are related to the MS symptoms of pain, anxiety, cognition and motor dysfunction. My studies examine which neurotransmitters are involved in the progression of these symptoms.

How will your research (being funded by MSSOC) impact individuals living with or impacted by MS?

My research allows for a better understanding of the role of neurotransmitter dysfunction in MS. This will provide more targets for possible treatments for both MS symptoms and underlying disease.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

I’m proud and excited to have continued funding from the MS society and very appreciative of everyone who has donated time and money to help research MS. This support allows me to continue to working hard to research MS. Thank you.

Dr. George Robertson

Dalhousie University

Operating Grant recipient

Area of Research: Progression/therapies

Project Title: Neuroprotection and remyelination in MS by improved mitochondrial performance

Learn more about Dr. Robertson

How did you become interested in MS research?

My father was diagnosed with MS when I was only eleven years old. During his agonizing decline, I became all-too-familiar with this crippling disorder and the considerable need for effective treatments.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

Each brain cell contains thousands of mitochondria that use oxygen and sugar to make the energy molecule called ATP that drives the chemical reactions in our body essential for life. Mitochondrial damage results in energy failure that is thought to trigger the death of brain cells responsible for MS. We are developing a mixture of natural compounds that protect the brain by strengthening mitochondria as a new treatment for MS.

How will your research (being funded by MSSOC) impact individuals living with or impacted by MS?

Destruction of brain cells or neurodegeneration is responsible for permanent disability in patients with MS. Mitochondrial damage is thought to play a key role in neurodegeneration. My laboratory has identified several natural compounds known to improve mitochondrial performance that protect mice from an experimental form of MS. We have been funded to determine the best combination of these compounds for improving mitochondrial performance and protecting the brain. These compounds are well-recognized as safe. Once an optimal combination has been identified, it should therefore be rapidly approved for human testing.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

Once animal testing for safety and therapeutic activity is finished, we will be well positioned to apply for permission to start human clinical trials. Without funding from the MS Society of Canada this research would not have been possible.

Dr. Jiwon Oh

St. Michael's Hospital

2012 Decker Family endMS Transitional Career Development Award recipient

Area of Research: Progression/therapies

Project Title: Multiparametic MRI correlates of sensorimotor dysfunction in the spinal cord in multiple sclerosis

Learn more about Dr. Oh

Briefly describe your background. How did you get involved with MS?

I am clinically trained as a neurologist, and was exposed to the subspecialty of MS frequently during my neurology residency at the University of Toronto. I was drawn to the field for a few reasons. First, I find the clinical practice of MS very rewarding, as it is a chronic neurological disorder that affects individuals in the prime of their lives, and is a field where clinicians can make a real difference in patient’s lives. Second, MS is a field that is rapidly developing, making it extremely stimulating from an intellectual perspective. Finally, quite a few of my academic mentors and role-models are subspecialists in the MS field, which naturally made me inclined towards the specialty. After competing neurology residency at the University of Toronto in 2010, I have been pursuing a clinical and research fellowship in MS at Johns Hopkins University, while concurrently pursuing a PhD in the Graduate Training Program in Clinical Investigation. My primary research interest is in using advanced MRI techniques to investigate the spinal cord in MS patients.

What does this award mean to you?

This award will act as a valuable stepping stone in my career as I transition from a fellowship to an independent faculty position. Transitional periods are often a difficult time, as one adjusts to new circumstances and surroundings. This award is extremely important to me, as it will give me the opportunity to devote serious time to clinical research during this early stage of my career, which is critical to establish a foundation upon which I can build for the rest of my career. With the help of this award, I hope I will eventually be able to make a serious contribution to the body of scientific knowledge that will make a difference the lives of MS patients.

What are your long term plans?

On completion of my clinical fellowship and PhD at Johns Hopkins University, I plan to return to the University of Toronto where I will commence a faculty position as a clinical researcher. I plan to devote my time to seeing MS patients, and partaking in MRI and clinical research in MS.

Finish this sentence: “Thanks to the MS Society’s endMS initiative, I….

have had the opportunity to attend many educational events that have fostered my interest in MS. In addition, during my fellowship, I have received educational and financial support that has been very important in my development as a clinical researcher. This sort of support is invaluable to young investigators like myself, as it provides us with material and educational support to pursue and achieve academic goals that will make a contribution to the field of MS.

Finish this sentence: “I believe this award will help Canada be a leader in MS research because...”

It gives young investigators at critical junctures in their careers support to establish and develop important research interests, which sets the stage for Canada to make a contribution to MS research on an international level.

Dr. Marcia Finlayson

Queen’s University

Operating Grant recipient

Area of Research: Symptom management/quality of life

Project Title: A longitudinal, multi-method investigation of transitions into nursing homes among people with multiple sclerosis

Learn more about Dr. Finlayson

How did you become interested in MS research?

I became interested in MS through a combination of clinical practice as an occupational therapist, volunteer work with the MS Society in Manitoba, and personal experience. My mother has MS and her experiences of living with the disease have raised many questions about it constitutes client-centered, effective and comprehensive MS care.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

The overarching aim of our study is to identify critical precursors of nursing home entry among people with MS. We will achieve this goal by using longitudinal data from health care records and interviews with people with MS and their families. The results of the study will guide the development of programs and services to prevent or delay nursing home entry among people with MS who may be able to stay in their own homes with appropriate supports.

How will your research (being funded by MSSOC) impact individuals living with or impacted by MS?

Previous research has shown that people with MS are worried and concerned about the possibility of living in a nursing home. If available services and supports could be put in place at the right time, some people with MS may be able to delay nursing home entry or avoid it all together. This study will help us identify if there are critical events or situations that could be identified in advance so that preventative services and supports could be put in place and enable people with MS to remain in their own homes.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

The challenges of MS occur during the course of day-to-day life (e.g., new or changing symptoms, difficulties with activities) and because of worries about the future. The research we are doing is focused on generating knowledge that can guide the development of programs and services to reduce one specific future worry: nursing home entry. Reducing this worry may give people with MS more hope for the future.

Sandra Magalhaes

McGill University

Doctoral Studentship recipient

Area of Research: Cause/risk factors

Project Title: Etiologic research in multiple sclerosis: Measurements and analysis

Learn more about Ms. Magalhaes

How did you become interested in MS research?

I was first introduced to MS research in 2007 when I obtained a position as a Clinical Research Project Manager at the Hospital for Sick Children with Dr. Brenda Banwell. As part of this research team I was involved in important research to better understand MS in children. These experiences made me very interested in MS research and led me to develop a doctoral research project to better understand the causes of MS.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

My current research aims to enhance our understanding of what causes MS, in both children and adults. I am using rigorous research methodology to develop questionnaire standards for pediatric MS researchers to use in their studies. I am also using special statistical techniques to better understand how sun exposure impacts the development of MS in adults.

How will your research (being funded by MSSOC) impact individuals living with or impacted by MS?

My research aims to better understand what causes MS, with the goal of preventing MS in individuals at risk. Providing questionnaire standards for pediatric MS researcher will improve the quality of results obtained in individual studies, with the aim to unmask the causes of MS in children. Improved understanding of how sun exposure impacts development of adult-onset MS may help target health promotion strategies to reduce MS risk.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

I am very enthusiastic about my research and I am confident that I can make important contributions to MS research. Thank you for your support, it is greatly appreciated! Without this support it would be very difficult for me to conduct my research.

Dr. Shannon Dunn

University Health Network

Operating Grant recipient

Area of Research: Progression/therapies

Project Title: PPARdelta as a regulator of EAE progression

Learn more about Dr. Dunn

How did you get started in the MS field?

My mom had MS. I’ve witnessed her MS since I was two years old, and was living with MS in my family for a long time. It was such a big part of my life that, at first, I did not want to study MS. It was a dominating thing in my life, my mom was very sick and we had to visit her in the hospital every day. It was very difficult for us as children to have to watch a parent go through that. I did my undergraduate studies and completed a PhD in kinesiology; I was interested in athletics, endurance training, and muscle responses to training.

Following my PhD I realized that I maybe was not as interested in skeletal muscles and decided to switch fields and find my true passion. At that point I decided to face up to MS and do a postdoctoral fellowship in an MS lab. I was not sure how that was going to go because I was not trained in that area so I did a lot of research and prepared a shortlist of labs and also looked at a lot of research papers to look for an aspect of MS that would be interesting to me (because there are so many aspects of MS). I found a lab that focused a lot on translating basic findings into potential treatments for MS. This lab was located at Stanford which is a great institution.

I e-mailed the PI and got an e-mail from him right away. I was ready to go and went off to work at Stanford for 7 years, where I learned the basics of immunology, animal models of MS, about the human disease itself. It was a very rich learning experience and provided me with opportunities to publish papers and get my career started.

Now that I am facing MS, I realized that there are people who are doing much better than my mom was doing, and that there are a lot of promising treatments for the disease that are allowing people live in a better state than they were before. This has been an optimistic experience, and has allowed me to see what is happening in the MS community as opposed to avoiding MS which is what I was doing before (selective head in the sand metaphor). Now I remain engaged in the MS community, sitting on the grant review panel at the MS Society, which allows me to see what others are doing in terms of research.

How would you describe the research you do?

I am trying to figure out if certain risk factors may make some people more susceptible to MS than others. I am drawing from statistical studies in the literature that are telling us there are certain things that put us at greater risk for MS. I would take that information and apply it to animal models which mimic MS disease. In the animal model we would focus on a specific risk factor such as sex and how sex factors in the disease. For example we would ask, “Why do females get MS more often than men?” We can look at sex differences in mouse model and try to get to the mechanism of how that may happen. We look at other risk factors, but focus mainly on sex as that appears to be the top risk factor in addition to genetic factors. The next factor we want to look at is obesity. Research has found that obesity in childhood is associated with a doubling in risk for MS.

We are also looking at a molecule known as PPARdelta, which is regulated by sex hormones and whose activity is impacted by diet, so that research ties in with our work on risk factors.

There is a lot of important scientific information on risk factors that is available, but no one has really knows the mechanisms by which these factors affect MS disease. These are things we can potentially modify in order to prevent disease. This is especially important in Canada where the risk for MS is high.

What impact will your research have for those affected by MS? / What do you hope to ultimately accomplish through your work in MS?

I hope that it will eventually lead to a new treatment or preventative strategy for the disease. For a basic finding to get to a drug it takes 10-15 years so it’s hard to know how this work will impact those who are already living with the disease. However in terms of preventative measures, if we learn more about the disease risk factors and mechanisms we can determine ways to prevent disease or identify the MS early enough to effectively treat it. If you can identify who is at risk for MS you may be able to stop it in its tracks which is really the ultimate goal identifying people who are at risk early enough. Things like corrective dietary therapy or medication that gets them off the high risk track.

To view Dr. Dunn’s feature story in MS Research, click here.

Dr. Stefanie Black

University of Calgary

Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient

Area of Research: Cause/risk factors

Project Title: The role of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors in the cuprizone model of demyelination

Learn more about Dr. Black

How did you become interested in MS research?

I am interested in cell death and how it results in neurological deficits that are seen in diseases affecting the brain and spinal cord. In MS, these deficits result from the disruption of normal nerve cell communication because the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells is lost. Because of the prevalence of MS in young Canadians, I want to study the cellular events leading to myelin loss and death of myelin-producing cells, with the hope of identifying an underlying cause of MS.

Please describe the research aims of your current study which is being funded by MSSOC.

My research investigates what happens at a cellular level leading to the loss of the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells, or demyelination, in MS. Using a mouse model of demyelination, I am investigating how overactivity of a protein called the NMDA receptor contributes to death of myelin-producing cells and also to pain associated with MS.

How will your research (being funded by MSSOC) impact individuals living with or impacted by MS?

My research will help us understand what causes MS by looking at early cellular events in myelin loss. Information gained from this research will help us prevent the death of myelin-producing cells, and thus help stop MS progression. Also, this research may identify a cause of MS-related pain which could allow better treatment of pain in MS patients.

Comments for donors who are supporting your research.

The cause of MS has yet to be discovered. Studies defining the cellular events responsible for myelin loss are crucial in order to more fully understand this debilitating disease, to develop strategies to stop MS progression, and to alleviate symptoms such as chronic pain.