Affiliation(s): University of British Columbia
Dr. van den Elzen completed his BSc in Biochemistry and an MD at the University of Calgary. He became interested in MS research early on, when his fiancée at the time had been diagnosed with MS. He did an extra year of medical school to begin research in immunology and MS, first at the Montreal Neurological Institute with Dr. Trevor Owens, and then at Stanford University with Dr. Garry Fathman. Upon completion of medical school, he received a postdoctoral fellowship from the MS Society of Canada to work with Dr. Eli Sercarz to study T cell repertoires in MS/EAE at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego. At that time, he also became interested in the work of our neighboring lab at the Institute, Dr. Mitch Kronenberg, who worked on the immune response towards lipid antigens. From San Diego, he went to Harvard Medical School in Boston to begin residency training in Clinical Pathology/Lab Medicine at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard's primary teaching hospital. He devoted much of his research elective time during residency beginning to work with Dr. Michael Brenner, who, like Mitch Kronenberg, worked on lipid immunology. Upon completion of residency, Dr. van den Elzen joined the Brenner lab as a postdoctoral fellow to work on the immune response to lipids, which he had come to believe was an important aspect of MS pathology. This has continued to be an area of focus since moving from Boston to Vancouver to take a faculty position at the University of British Columbia, supported in part by a Career Transition Fellowship from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. His research focus has shifted from anti-lipid T cells to also include B cells and their role in MS autoimmunity, and more recently to the role of EBV, an important environmental agent in MS. Dr. van den Elzen has been fortunate and grateful for having received support from the MS Society of Canada numerous times throughout his career.
How did you become interested in MS research? What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?
While studying biochemistry and medicine at the University of Calgary, I met my future wife, who was subsequently diagnosed with MS. To see such a young and promising person become affected by this disease inspired me to help seek a cure. She herself became a neurologist and during our 15 years together, and still today, her strength and resilience in coping with the increasing debilitation of MS has continued to be an inspiration.
What do you enjoy most about doing research and what are some of the challenges you face?
I enjoy the process of generating new and innovative ideas on how to approach MS research. The major challenge is always obtaining funding to carry out these ideas effectively. Another major challenge is being diverted from the focus on research by mundane administrative tasks involved in running a lab, which can easily occupy the majority of one's time.
Describe the importance and level of collaboration in your research?
Collaboration has always been of major importance in my work. New perspectives and regular interactions with other researchers is essential. Current collaboration with researchers such as Dr. Soren Gantt, Dr. Marc Horwitz and Dr. Alex Prat (to name a few) have been a huge help in keeping my research going.
How important is the support from the MS Society in enabling you to conduct research?
The MS Society of Canada as well as the National MS Society in the US have been my primary supporters over the years, and this support has kept my focus in particular towards MS, even though the basic immunology that I study has many potential branches of relevance towards other diseases.
If you could ask one question to a person living with MS that would help you design your study, what would it be?
Do you recall having a particularly severe or prolonged viral illness as a teen or young adult (specifically infectious mononucleosis, or "mono"), with symptoms such as sore throat, enlarged lymph nodes ("glands") in the neck, and extreme fatigue? Was this illness accompanied by any unusual neurological symptoms, that today you would attribute to your MS? Did you ever have such an illness that was within months of a head injury such as a concussion?