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Rochester Awarded New MS Research Center

Monday, June 12, 2006

A new research center whose scientists are working on better ways to treat multiple sclerosis has been established in Rochester by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The University of Rochester Medical Center is bringing together experts who normally focus on Alzheimer’s disease, HIV vaccines, and spinal cord repair, as well as multiple sclerosis, in a unique center designed to stimulate MS research by drawing on the expertise of scientists from a wide array of disciplines. The new Collaborative Multiple Sclerosis Research Center Award – the only one in the nation established by the society this year – is headed by neurologist Benjamin Segal, M.D., associate professor of Neurology and director of Neuroimmunology Research. Segal has enlisted several of his colleagues to direct their attention on new ways to investigate the disease.

With $825,000 in funding from the society, the center’s goal is to bring together the University’s strengths in vaccine biology, cellular and molecular biology, virology, and clinical MS research in a concerted effort to learn more about the disease.

Segal’s research team is trying to address in new ways the central problem of MS, an autoimmune disease where, for unknown reasons, the body itself attacks a coating called myelin around nerve fibers. Myelin protects nerve fibers and allows them to send rapid signals that control movement, sensation, coordination, and vision. Damage to the myelin causes an array of symptoms in MS patients, including fatigue, weakness, cognitive difficulties, and difficulty swallowing or walking. About 350,000 people in the United States have the disease, one of the top causes of disability in young adults.

Segal has tapped his colleagues from around the Medical Center to develop new ways to study MS as part of the five-year project.

One project will focus on helping the body repair the myelin and nerve fibers that are constantly under attack. After several attacks, patients often go from experiencing occasional MS symptoms to a more constant, progressive decline that results in ongoing disability. Currently there are no treatments available to prevent the mounting myelin damage.

Working with Segal is neuroscientist Roman Giger, Ph.D., an expert on the molecular signals the body uses to grow nerve cells. Much of his work focuses on trying to persuade a protein known as Nogo – which normally inhibits growth of nerve cells – to turn off so that new nerve cells could grow in patients with a spinal cord injury. Segal will work with Giger and neuroscientist William Bowers, Ph.D., to inactivate Nogo and persuade nerves to grow new myelin.

The team will also try to prevent the immune system reaction that results in the destruction of myelin in the first place. Vaccine expert Steven Dewhurst, Ph.D., is part of a project whose goal is the development of novel molecular reagents that will turn off the inflammatory process that damages myelin. Neuroscientists such as Kerry O’Banion, M.D., Ph.D., an expert on the role of inflammation in diseases like Alzheimer’s, will work with Segal to understand the molecular signals that control inflammation in the brain and spinal cord in MS patients.

Also taking part in the project are neurologists Steven Schwid, M.D., and Andrew Goodman, M.D., who have extensive experience with clinical trials in MS; and Howard Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., and Tim Mosmann, Ph.D., who head research centers in aging and in vaccine biology, respectively.

Segal is part of a team of physicians and nurses at the Medical Center who staff one of the world’s leading MS clinics. About 2,500 MS patients from Western New York and beyond receive their care at the University of Rochester Medical Center. In addition, Segal is one of the nation’s leading researchers on the chain reaction of biochemical steps that happen inside the body of a person who has MS. He has shed light on the role of proteins that stimulate and recruit destructive white blood cells to the central nervous system during MS. He’s currently taking part in an international study testing an experimental drug that inhibits such proteins in an attempt to suppress the debilitating attacks that most patients with MS experience.

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