A collaboration of five of the world's leading neuroscientists, including Robert Miller, Ph.D., professor of neurosciences at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has identified three new "switches," or signals, operating in the brain and spinal column that appear to turn on and off the nerve cell's ability to repair myelin. Myelin is the protective coating surrounding nerve cells that is damaged by multiple sclerosis (MS). The scientists' findings are a critical first step in understanding myelin repair and its role in treatments for MS and other demyelinating diseases.
"We believe there are a number of mechanisms at work in MS which prevent immature brain cells from developing into myelinating cells, or cause the death of myelinating cells," said Rusty Bromley, COO of the Saratoga, Calif.-based Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF), which funds the scientists' research. "We are excited that just one year into our research program, our scientists have identified three key signals: one which causes the death of myelinating cells, one which amplifies the production of that signal, and one which stimulates developing cells to remyelinate. These findings point to specific opportunities to develop drugs to repair the damage being caused by multiple sclerosis."
The Myelin Repair Foundation is a nonprofit research foundation focused exclusively on identifying drug targets that repair myelin by the year 2009. MRF's team of scientists, working together virtually, from five different university laboratories in the United States and Canada, have been able to accelerate their research by working on a common research plan, sharing their findings in real time, and piggybacking experiments that might otherwise have taken years to accomplish. The collaborators believe that, by working together and sharing data, they can reduce the time to drug discovery by as much as 75 percent.
In addition to Miller, the MRF scientists include Ben Barres, M.D., Ph.D., professor of developmental biology and neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine; David Colman, Ph.D., director and Penfield Professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University; Stephen Miller, Ph.D., professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University; and Brian Popko, Ph.D., professor of neurology at the University of Chicago.
MRF President Scott Johnson, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who suffers from MS, founded MRF in 2002 with a single purpose: to identify drug targets that would lead to treatments for MS within five years. "It's been our goal from day one to accelerate this process," he said. "The team of scientists has collaborated exceptionally well, and the results speak for themselves. Each small step we take brings us that much closer to possible treatments, and that's our ultimate goal."
The research team will complete the first year of the five-year research plan on July 1. "These five scientists and the post-docs and students who work in their labs have exceeded all of our expectations," Johnson said.
To date, he has raised $6 million to support the research, including an initial $1 million donation from Intuit co-founder Scott Cook and a $250,000 award from Boston biopharmaceutical company Biogen Idec.
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