WU scientist lands large grant for MS research
Several years ago, a colleague of Dr. Marina Cella, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at the Washington University School of Medicine, became afflicted with multiple sclerosis, leaving her wheelchair-bound. Cella’s colleague was a technician in the MS research lab, but over time she lost all capability to perform experiments. As the colleague’s health continued to deteriorate, she could no longer perform administrative tasks or even drive herself to work.
Motivated in her MS research by the experience of her friend, who now resides in Switzerland, Cella was recently awarded a $333,000 grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
MS is a disease in which cells in the immune system that normally function to protect the body begin to attack neurons instead. The disease degrades the myelin sheath—which coats neurons and speeds up electrical impulses traveling along neurons—leaving the neurons damaged.
Cella and her colleagues discovered a type of cell that increases the number of interferons, particularly one called interferon alpha. Interferons are proteins secreted by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens.
In her laboratories, Cella runs model experiments for both humans and small animals. The human model experiment directly involves human DNA and human cells. The small animal model experiments are conducted with a group of mice, all of which have the disease, but some are immunized and some are not.
Cella underscored the importance of using both models.
“The point of the human experiments is that they are very informative but cannot prove causation since there are many confounding variables,” she said. “The small animal model is more simple and allows us to more accurately judge causation.”
Remarking on the progress she and her colleagues have made over the last decade, Cella said that “the discovery of this cell type [interferon alpha] has enabled us to understand mechanisms of infectious diseases, but only over the last two to three years have we learned about the mechanism of autoimmune disease.”
Looking to the future, Cella and her colleagues hope to continue to explore the disease beyond interferon alpha.
“A lot of the pathogens are very complex, and in vitro experiments have shown that what works on one pathogen may not work on another,” she said.
Junior Nick Forsch’s mother has been diagnosed with MS. He said that he was pleased to hear about Cella’s grant and research and is hopeful that a cure can be found.
“I think that this is something that is common enough that we need a little more funding and a little more focus in finding a cure if it is curable,” he said. “[We should] definitely be able to take care of the people who really are affected by it.”
Additional reporting by Sahil Patel.