Eight University of Sydney researchers and students have been awarded $748,200 to investigate the causes and treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS).
The MS Research Australia grants will allow new investigations into whether adequate vitamin D during childhood can prevent MS, as well as develop new treatments for the autoimmune condition that harness the body’s natural ‘killer cells’.
Immunologist Dr Fiona McKay, from the Sydney Medical School and Westmead Institute for Medical Research, was granted $216,000 for a three-year project to test whether new drugs that improve the function of natural killer cells in cancer patients can also work for MS.
“A type of white blood cell, these cells are responsible for killing harmful cells in the body, including those infected by viruses, and immune cells that inappropriately attack our own body,” Dr McKay explained.
Using newly discovered MS risk genes, Dr McKay and the team at Westmead identified a blood marker in a subgroup of MS patients that suggests that their natural killer cells are not working properly.
If the cancer drugs also work for MS blood cells in the lab, the next step is trialing it in MS patients whose natural killer cells need a boost.
PhD student Lawrence Ong, also from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, was granted $24,700 to look at how environmental factors might ‘switch on’ MS in genetically susceptible individuals.
He will specifically look at whether too much or too little vitamin D during early childhood can alter the machinery that turns on or off genes in immune cells, and if so, which ones.
“This would provide a target for MS prevention and therapeutic manipulation and shed light on the regulation of genes in immune cells, a process that is poorly understood,” Lawrence said.
Dr McKay added: “The cause and the cure for MS remains unknown, and available treatments have highly variable results in individual patients. We desperately need new drugs and new approaches to combat this terrible disease.”
Other University of Sydney MS Research Australia grants recipients include: