How scientists collaborate, and how that can lead to cures

Ariel view of Milan, Italy

Report from Milan, Italy, Feb. 8, 2013:

I am sitting in an auditorium in Milan, Italy, with about 100 other neurologists and scientists. This is the second day that I have sat here. We have come from many countries — including Germany, France, Austria, England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Italy and the United States — for the First Scientific Conference of the International Progressive Multiple Sclerosis Collaborative. This meeting illustrates how scientists from around the world collaborate and offers new hope to people with progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

Progressive MS is the disabling form of the disease. Over the past 20 years we have made great advances in treating the early form of MS, called relapsing-remitting MS. We have eight Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to treat relapsing MS.

But none of these therapies are effective in controlling progressive MS. Since over half the people with MS have this form of the disease and it is the more disabling form, this is a big problem. It is also a tough problem to solve. So this collaborative group of neurologists and scientists has formed with the goal of developing effective therapies for progressive MS.

I am often asked by people whether scientists collaborate. My answer is always: “Yes, there is tremendous collaboration among scientists.” This meeting is a clear illustration. Leaders in research on MS from all over the world have gathered and are freely sharing their research findings and learning from one another.

It is worth commenting on something else. Why in this day of video-conferencing are we meeting in person? It was not for the trip to Italy. It is cold in Milan in February and we are spending all day inside a not particularly comfortable auditorium. (Although I did see a Verdi opera at La Scalla the first night I arrived.) It is because we cannot replicate the lively interaction that occurs when meeting “live” versus video-conferencing.

Yesterday two scientists engaged in a spontaneous debate about the relevance of recent genetic studies to our understanding of progressive MS. One scientist, a genetics expert, argued passionately that the genetics research had failed to show any differences between relapsing and progressive MS and that therefore relapsing and progressive MS were the same. The other scientist, a neuroscientist, calmly argued that he was unconvinced because the genetic effects on MS were so small that they really shed no light on progressive MS. They argued back and forth and everyone learned from this dialogue between two experts with very different scientific backgrounds.

Something else comes from meeting “live.” Attendees talk with each other informally over meals, during conference breaks and while walking to the meeting. I have set up two important collaborations because of this meeting, one with a scientist from Canada and another with a scientist from Vienna.

The Canadian had developed a very special strain of mouse that he agreed to share with us at the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center for research we are doing on mitochondria in a model of MS. He had spent over a year developing this mouse strain and it would have taken us that much time to develop our own version of this mouse. His generous offer to share his mice with us will save us a year and speed our research forward.

The Austrian is internationally known for his research studying MS tissue obtained at autopsy and brain biopsy.  He has an extensive collection of tissue samples for research, which we do not have at OHSU. I collaborate with a group of investigators at OHSU who are studying a novel virus that causes an MS-like disease in monkeys. One of the investigators has developed viral probes to detect this virus in brain tissues. For two years we have wanted to use these viral probes in MS tissue to see if a similar virus might be active in MS brains, but we needed a collaborator. Over a glass of wine, I told the Austrian about the virus and he became quite excited, and generously offered to use our viral probes in samples from his MS tissue bank.

These collaborations would have been very difficult, maybe impossible, for me to set up via email.

So did we solve the problem of progressive MS in the two days in Milan? No. But we came away with a large number of scientists committed to working together to accelerate research on progressive MS. In addition, multiple new collaborations were set up, like the two I set up.

We have not solved the problem of progressive MS. But we have taken the first steps towards ultimately curing progressive MS. And we will get there faster because of these international collaborations.

Dennis Bourdette, M.D.
Professor and Chair, Department of Neurology
OHSU Brain Institute