Funding boost for multiple sclerosis research

Four University of Melbourne researchers have been awarded funding from MS Research Australia for projects that advance prevention and treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) – a debilitating disorder of the central nervous system that can affect the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. MS affects more than 23,000 Australians and 2.3 million people worldwide.

Multiple sclerosis

Associate Professor Richard Hughes was awarded a project grant of $165,000 for three years; Dr Vilija Jokubaitis has been awarded a fellowship of $158,000 for three years; and Professor Helmut Butzkueven and Dr Peter van Wijngaarden were each awarded incubator grants of $18,000 for one year.

Dr Matthew Miles, CEO of MS Research Australia said: “We are very pleased to support the work of these University of Melbourne researchers. Between them, their research spans identifying the triggers for MS, developing better treatments, and investigating a possible cure for the disease by repair or regeneration of cells. We have great hopes for their research and the possible benefits to those with, or at risk of, MS.”  

With his funding, Associate Professor Hughes and colleague Dr Susan Northfield – both of the Drug Design Laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics – will continue developing a new treatment for MS based on peptides that repair myelin, the protective layer around nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord which is damaged by the immune system in MS.  

During her fellowship, Dr Jokubaitis will conduct a genetic study to investigate whether there are inherited differences between people with mild or severe presentations of the disease. She hopes to determine which genes can predict how MS will progress in an individual. The research, if successful, will offer people with recently diagnosed MS a better understanding of their likely prognosis and more informed treatment options.

Dr Jokubaitis was delighted to have received funding: "I am very grateful for the fellowship support from MS Research Australia. The findings from my research fellowship will help move us towards the personalisation of medicine, by allowing us to use our biology to inform disease management strategies. I'd further like to thank MS Research Australia for their commitment to, and long history of, supporting Australian researchers."

The strongest environmental risk factor for MS is the latitude at which a person lives and their lack of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and vitamin D levels. For Professor Butzkueven, the funding will extend his work into understanding how vitamin D changes gene activity in immune cells in people at risk of developing MS.

Dr van Wijngaarden will use his funding to further his research on the eye as a monitor of disease activity and repair in MS. His laboratory model will investigate damage to eye nerves and will allow researchers to test new therapies that aim to repair damaged myelin in MS.