MSCenter2 275x275Multiple sclerosis research at UAB has received a significant boost thanks to a $1.3 million anonymous gift. While most people focus on establishing careers and starting families in their 20s and 30s, this is also the age range when about 80 percent of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are diagnosed with the disease. MS affects the central nervous system and causes the brain to send the wrong signals throughout the body—setting off a chain reaction in which, among other symptoms, your balance becomes unsteady, your vision blurs, and your muscles spasm.

Thousands of people in the Southeast have received this diagnosis, but there is a refuge for them to seek care: the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center (MSC). The center serves as a hub for all MS-related activities and is a comprehensive resource for patients, UAB physicians and scientists, and community physicians. The MSC’s goal is to advance research and clinical care for neuroimmunological disorders, which includes training the next generation of MS physicians and scientists as well as providing access to the unsurpassed care available to patients through UAB’s world-class health system.

UAB Named National Center for Comprehensive MS Care

The UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center (MSC) has been designated a Center for Comprehensive MS Care by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), which recognizes the UAB MSC’s multidisciplinary approach to MS care. As the highest designation the NMSS provides, it also acknowledges the UAB MSC’s commitment to offer patients with MS a full array of coordinated medical, psychosocial, and rehabilitation services.

“We are so pleased to add this national designation to our achievements as we provide tangible solutions for people living with MS today,” says UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center Co-Director Khurram Bashir, M.D., MPH. “We uniquely offer quality and comprehensive care to address the complex and varied needs of patients with MS from childhood through adulthood. We’re also engaging in new and promising efforts toward identifying treatments to impact and ultimately stop this disease.”

Comprehensive care at the UAB MSC involves specialists in neuro-ophthalmology, neuro-urology, urogynecology and pelvic reconstructive surgery, neurosurgery, physical medicine and rehabilitation, psychiatry, psychology, and pain management collaborating to provide the best possible care to MS patients.

The UAB MSC joins only six other centers within a 200-mile radius of Birmingham to achieve this designation, and it is part of an elite group of 128 centers nationwide that have this recognition.

Since receiving a $1.3 million transformative gift from an anonymous donor, the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center is now accelerating research and advancing discoveries with the ultimate goal of finding the underlying cause of and a cure for this debilitating disease. 

“We are truly grateful for this incredible gift that has transformed our MS research efforts at UAB. These dollars will certainly help us be competitive for big grants for MS,” says Etty “Tika” Benveniste, Ph.D., the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center co-director, Charlene A. Jones Endowed Chair in Neuroimmunology, and senior associate dean of research administration in the School of Medicine. “The obvious goal is curing MS. In order to reach this, we need to understand what causes MS so we can effectively treat and modify disease development. This gift makes identifying new therapies for MS care and treatment here at UAB possible.”

The UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center is on its way to accomplishing Dr. Benveniste’s goal. The gift recently funded three pilot grants that examine what causes the body’s T-cells and myeloid cells to become hyperactivated when confronted with multiple sclerosis. According to Dr. Benveniste, this provokes a potent inflammatory response and causes severe damage to the body’s central nervous system.

“We aim to understand the underlying mechanisms that provoke this hyperactivation and are looking for ways we can suppress this response,” she says.

“These projects are supporting our researchers’ innovative ideas that could potentially lead to new avenues for MS treatment,” adds Khurram Bashir, M.D., MPH, the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center’s co-director.

As the largest MS Center in Alabama at one of the preeminent academic medical centers in the country, the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center promotes the discovery of novel treatments for MS through basic, translational, and clinical research.

“With this gift, we can move some of our research into the clinics so patients will have the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research, which no other center would be doing,” says Bashir.

Bashir and Benveniste agree they want the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center to be the premier center not only in the Southeast, but also one of the foremost ones in the U.S. The gift helped them recently establish an external scientific advisory board, which consists of renowned leaders in the field of MS who provide constructive feedback about the center.

“The UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center is poised to become a leader in MS clinical and translational research,” says board member Benjamin M. Segal, M.D., the University of Michigan Multiple Sclerosis Center director and the Holtom-Garrett Professor of Neurology. “The clinical operation benefits from an excellent team of MS specialty physicians, a large patient base, an established clinical trial infrastructure, and a reputation as the ‘go-to’ MS clinic in the state of Alabama and surrounding areas. As a consequence of these unique resources, UAB is well-positioned to conduct comprehensive statewide epidemiological studies and to readily recruit even rare subsets of MS patients for clinical studies and trials.”

MSCenter 275x275Etty “Tika” Benveniste and Khurram Bashir are co-directors of the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center.

Those subsets of MS patients include African-Americans. Although African-Americans have a lower incidence of MS, their MS tends to be much more severe. Bashir estimates that about a quarter to a third of UAB’s MS patients are African-American.

“We want to see if the drugs being used in the majority of MS patients benefit African-American MS patients, because we know many diseases have different presentations in various ethnic groups,” says Benveniste. “It’s a health disparities issue, and we can do clinical trials with this African-American patient population to help bridge the gap.”

Moreover, the UAB Multiple Sclerosis Center’s research and clinical endeavors extend to pediatric MS. Although Benveniste notes MS is a relatively rare disease in children, she says the incidence is rising.

“The drugs everyone is using for these kids are the same ones that are mainly tested in adults,” says Benveniste. “We want to develop best strategies for helping care for our pediatric MS patients, and I think we can make some contributions to better understand the underpinnings of MS in pediatric patients.”

The gift also supports a program manager for the center, Michelle Belue, M.A., who focuses on coordinating and advancing the center’s activities. Bashir and Benveniste agree she has been incredibly valuable to the center.

“Hiring Michelle to oversee the administration of the center allows us to focus on providing all aspects of MS care, starting from diagnosis to diagnostic studies to treatment to management of symptoms,” says Bashir. “We can offer all of these services in one place.”

“It is exciting to know we have a research acceleration fund that promotes new science and moves us faster toward a cure for MS,” adds board member Rob Burton, president and CEO of Hoar Holdings LLC. “The new MS Center, with an excellent manager and committed leaders, will improve collaboration across many disciplines to improve patient care and advance research projects. I hope others will join in supporting this cause.”

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By Emily Henagan