Harnessing vitamin D and body’s own killer cells to fight MS

25 January 2018
Eight University of Sydney researchers have been awarded almost $750,000 from MS Research Australia to investigate causes and treatments for multiple sclerosis.

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:

  • Professor Georges Grau from Sydney Medical School received a $225,000, three-year Project Grant to further knowledge on extending periods of disease inactivity in MS.
  • Associate Professor Ollie Jay from the Faculty of Health Sciences won $176,000 over three years for a Project Grant developing new ways to help individuals with MS combat heat-related fatigue.
  • Dr Hans Bogaardt from the Faculty of Health Sciences received $16,800 for a one-year Incubator Grant to trial whether neuromuscular electrical stimulation and exercise helps MS sufferers having difficulty in swallowing.
  • Dr Todd Hardy received a $5,000 Travel Award to visit the Mayo clinic in the United States to collect data on the world’s largest cohort of patients with Baló’s concentric sclerosis, a variant of MS.
  • Nicole Fewings, PhD student at Westmead Institute for Medical Research received $24,000 for an Incubator Grant to investigate how the body’s natural killer cells could reduce neuroinflammation in MS.
  • Amy-Lee Sesel was awarded a Postgraduate Scholarship of $60,000 for two years that will see her develop and evaluate an online mindfulness intervention for people with MS.

Kobi Print

Media and PR Adviser (Health)

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