Scientists Unite to Find a Cure for Multiple Sclerosis
May 23, 2022
MS research boosted by cross-campus collaboration and philanthropy.
When it comes to uncovering new ways to treat and prevent Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a chronic and complex neuroimmunologic disorder with no known cause, the more minds involved, the better. Fortunately, a cross-campus collaboration between the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado has brought together many of the nation’s leading clinicians and researchers in adult and pediatric neurology, united by a common cause: to find a cure.
Located on the Anschutz Medical Campus, the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center combines cutting-edge research and expert clinical care for adult and pediatric patients affected by MS. And while the onset of MS typically occurs in adults between their 20s and 50s, pediatric MS research is rapidly advancing insight into risk factors and prevention, which may ultimately lead to a key that unlocks a cure.
Fighting a silent disease
“MS is now one of the most treatable neurologic diseases that we see, but it tends to affect people early in life,” says Timothy Vollmer, MD, professor of Neurology and the Center’s co-director. “Like other neurological conditions, MS tends to be clinically silent at first, meaning the brain can somewhat compensate and mask early disease activity. Many people aren’t diagnosed until permanent damage has already been done. If we can diagnose it early, we can pretty much prevent people from becoming disabled over their lifetimes.”
Dr. Vollmer established the Center’s translational research lab, which is analyzing pediatric and adult biospecimens to build predictive models that support the early diagnosis and treatment of MS. Boosted by findings rooted in pediatric MS research, the lab is also working towards developing a vaccine for MS, as well as new therapies to repair neurological damage already done — and even reverse the disease’s course — in individuals living with MS.
Teri Schreiner, MD, MPH, a neurologist at Children’s Colorado, is lead investigator of the pediatric arm of this groundbreaking research. Through the DREAMS study, which stands for Detection and Risk in Early MS, her team is seeking to better understand the very earliest signs of MS that appear deep within the brain, long before actual symptoms appear.
This multi-year study is researching children under 18 whose parents or siblings have been diagnosed with MS, thus putting them at an increased risk of also developing the disease. Researchers then use MRIs to detect unusual spots on the brain and analyze blood samples for potential biomarkers that could help gauge disease progression.
“In the rare chance that we discover an asymptomatic child who has changes in their MRI, we’ll bring the family in for discussions. There is an option to start medicine to treat MS even before the first clinical attack, so we’ll ask them if they’d like to intervene now,” Dr. Schreiner says. “Early intervention can really change the trajectory and minimize — if not stop entirely — further inflammatory attacks on the brain.”
Discovery propelled by philanthropy
Aptly named, the DREAMS study became a reality because of a $1 million donation to Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation by Susan and Scott Drake, Colorado philanthropists who have been directly affected by the disease.
“The Drake family’s donation was incredibly generous, and we are very appreciative,” Dr. Schreiner says.
Almost 13 years ago, Susan began experiencing troubling numbness on the left side of her body. Initially misdiagnosed with a brain tumor, the mother of three’s journey for answers led her to Dr. Vollmer, who diagnosed her with MS. She credits him with helping her to navigate her diagnosis while continuing to live a full, active life.
“I was fortunately connected with Dr. Vollmer’s clinic very early on in my treatment, and we became really confident in his research and team,” Susan says. “We decided we would really like to support this research that is pushing in the direction of a vaccine for MS. We think it’s a really worthy cause, especially because Colorado has a high incidence of MS.”
Seeking to make the biggest impact with their donation, the Drakes asked Dr. Vollmer to determine where the funds should go. At his recommendation, more than half went to fund Dr. Schreiner’s DREAMS study, with the remainder helping to expand Children’s Colorado’s neuroimmunology program, which includes research into diseases that mimic MS.
“This research is not just impacting MS — it’s helping neurological diseases in general. The collaborative efforts taking place because of Dr. Vollmer and his team have led to overlapping treatment protocols showing promising results for many related diseases, like traumatic brain injuries,” Susan says.
’I’m lucky it was caught so early’
Fifteen-year-old Abby of Denver is eager to see how the on-campus MS research evolves. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with pediatric-onset MS at Children’s Colorado after experiencing eye pain and sudden vision problems in her left eye.
Abby is under the care of Dr. Schreiner and has already directly benefited from research conducted at Children’s Colorado through the Rocky Mountain MS Center.
Every six months Abby receives an infusion of a game-changing new therapy, rituximab, to help slow the progression of the disease. It works by attacking the B-cells that contribute to the brain damage caused by MS. This can slow or even halt disease progression and prevents “flare ups.”
Dr. Schreiner has extensively studied disease modifying therapies for children with MS and has recently worked with an international consortium on treatment protocols for the commonly used, off-label medication rituximab.
“I honestly have it quite easy where I am right now, and I’m lucky it was caught so early,” Abby says. “The diagnosis hasn’t affected me much at all except that I feel a lot more fatigued these days.”
A sophomore in high school, Abby hopes to one day work with children with special needs. While her long-term prognosis is bright, Abby hopes to see even more advancements in the future — including a vaccine for MS during her lifetime.
“When I was first diagnosed, my parents were quite worried because MS was so bad for past generations,” she recalls. “But the team at Children’s Colorado has been amazing, and my treatment is helping me feel a lot better. A vaccine for MS would be so cool.”