More than 300 members of the Alabama-Mississippi Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society met in Birmingham recently for their annual meeting; several of them stayed a few hours longer to meet with Etty (Tika) Benveniste, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology at UAB to learn more about MS research.
The occasion provided the somewhat rare opportunity for people with MS to meet front-line scientists, says Jan Bell, chapter president. “We try to inspire and connect our donors, clients and leaders with the folks who dedicate their lives to stopping the progression of MS, restoring function and ending it forever. UAB has research in all of those areas,” Bell says.
“Meeting people with MS has a tremendously positive impact,” Benveniste says. “The big picture of our research is the disease of MS. When patients come it’s humbling and very inspiring. I know they’re grateful for what we do, but we’re very grateful to them for their support and their dedication."
The NMSS currently provides more than $3 million in funding at UAB; that’s out of about $50 million the society distributes globally. “UAB really is the epicenter of MS research,” Bell says.
Among the projects funded at UAB is a Collaborative Research Center grant for which Benveniste is the principal investigator. “This has allowed us for the past four years to get faculty together from across campus who work on MS, but also on other neurological diseases and other autoimmune diseases that have some similarities,” Benveniste says. “To get people who are interested in other autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis to say, ‘look, there are similar things happening in MS. Why don’t you take your expertise and apply it to a new model?’ That’s been very gratifying and very successful.
“We’re always looking for new ways of thinking about disease. The NMSS Center grant brings people together. That’s a wonderful mechanism that the MS society supports,” Benveniste says.
Included in the funds this year is a NMSS fellowship, being conducted by William Meador, M.D., in Neurology. The grant enables him to spend more time with MS patients and participate in clinical trials. It also gives him time to work with other physicians who treat and diagnose and focus on symptom management. Gordon Meares, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Benveniste lab, has a prestigious NMSS 5-year Career Transition Award, which funds his studies on how astrocytes contribute to the disease process of MS.
The MS Society also supports research into pharmacological inhibitors that regulate the immune system that has shown very promising results in animal models of MS.
“Some of these drugs are already approved by FDA. Our hope is to get them into Phase 1 trials with MS patients. So we’re very grateful to the MS society for their support and their interest,” Benveniste says.