May 15, 1998

Multiple Sclerosis Center adds firepower to help fight disease

Multiple Sclerosis Center adds firepower to help fight disease

The treatment of multiple sclerosis and scientific research into the disabling disease has taken a giant step forward this year thanks to the generous donation of a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine alumnus.

The donation has allowed the Multiple Sclerosis Center in Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital to hire and train a fellow dedicated to researching and treating the disease.

Dr. John T. (Tom) West, a 1951 VUSM graduate from La Grange, Ga., donated the money, part of which is being used to fund the salary of Dr. Harold Moses, a physician who is involved both in the care of patients with MS and research into the cause and treatment of MS.

"Dr. West made this generous donation because his nephew from California has MS and he wanted to support the effort to find a cure for MS," said Dr. Subramaniam Sriram, William C. Weaver Professor of Experimental Neurology and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center. "We are extremely obliged to his generosity, thankful for his support and greatly indebted to him, his wife and his family."

Moses is completing his first year of the two-year fellowship. His fellowship will enable him to embark on a career as a clinician scientist. He will be able to act as the bridge between the bedside and bench.

Vanderbilt¹s Multiple Sclerosis Center, established five years ago, is the state¹s only center specializing in the research and treatment of MS.

"Our mission is to find a cure for MS, and while doing so, treat patients with the disease, educate family members and the community about the disease and to train physicians," Sriram said. The center also works closely with the Middle Tennessee chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society in developing educational and community outreach programs.

About one-half million people in the United States have MS. There are about 2,000 patients in the Middle Tennessee area. About 1,200 are patients at Vanderbilt.

The focus of research efforts at the MS Center is to find out factors that activate neurological cells of the brain. Sriram's view is that the neurological cell in the brain delivers the "final hit" on the insulating material around the nerves leading to disruption in nerve condition. Sriram also said that an infectious agent may be a critical trigger in activating microglial cells. His research efforts are also being directed in that area.

In addition to conducting basic research, the MS Center is also involved in Phase II and Phase III trials of new and novel agents that may slow or retard the progression of MS, Sriram said.

Much of the research at Vanderbilt is focusing on an infectious cause for Multiple Sclerosis.

"We¹re looking at organisms that may trigger MS ‹ areas that are not being pursued anywhere else," Sriram said.

Another area of research is the microglia cell, which is believed to be central to the underlying process of brain damage in MS patients.

"Brain damage in MS is hard to represent," Sriram said. "There is a loss of the insulating material in the nerves. The material, called myelin, is destroyed or chewed up for reasons we don¹t understand. The cell that does the chewing up is the Microglia cell. It becomes activated for some reason.

"There are two forces that are competing. One is trying to prevent it from happening. One is overacting and the disease is progressing," he said. When you see blindness or paralysis, the insulating material has been destroyed."

Vanderbilt is currently part of three multi-center trials in MS treatment.

Two trials are looking at the interferon beta drug in progressive MS. Another is looking at the monoclonal antibody to halt the worsening of the disease in acute attacks of MS. At least two more trials are planned for the coming year looking at novel therapeutic agents, Sriram said.