When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, there were limited treatment options available to slow the progression of the disease. For me, those treatment options didn’t work. My first eighteen months living with the disease I faced relapse after damaging relapse wondering if my quality of life would ever find some kind of normalcy again.
Then, in the summer of 2006, a new option emerged for people living with MS called Tysabri. Tysabri was proven in clinical trials to be a more efficacious treatment, but with higher efficacy came the tradeoff of more risk. The risk associated with Tysabri was a rare, and sometimes fatal, brain disease called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy or PML for short.
In 2006, relatively little was known about who was at risk for PML. The risk weighed heavy not only for the people considering starting Tysabri, but also for the doctors prescribing Tysabri. There was simply no approved way to quantify a person’s individual risk for contracting PML. Tysabri then became a personal decision. Do I try a treatment with the potential to slow down my relapses and risk a potentially fatal side effect? Or does the PML risk outweigh the potential benefit of slowing the progression of my disease?
While this conversation was taking place in neurologist offices across the globe, Alison Hirukawa started pursuing her PhD in Biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Her initial interest was in the study of breast cancer. Then, an opportunity to join a neuro research competition changed her focus. Today, she is part of a team of students trying to bring forward a patented PML risk stratification test that has the ability to help patients and change the conversation at the doctor’s office.
Today, however, Alison needs your help. I sat down with Alison to find out why.
Matt: Hello Alison, thank you for being on the blog. I understand that you, along with you team, are competing in a neuroscience competition. Could you tell me a little about that?
Alison: Yes, we are taking part in the Neuro Startup Challenge. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has many patents related to neurological diseases, that are available for licensing. The Centre for Advancing Innovation (CAI) evaluated many of these patents and identified those which showed the most potential. The purpose of the competition is to get interdisciplinary teams of business students, legal, medical and life science trainees, to write business plans and form startup companies to turn these patents into products which could actually help patients.
Matt: Why did you specifically want to take part in this competition?
Alison: I’m a PhD candidate in biochemistry, and while I love basic research, it can be frustrating to see good ideas sit on the shelf rather than progressing to the clinic. I’d like to expedite the process of translating basic scientific finding into therapeutic interventions- or as we call it going from ‘bench to bedside’. I saw this competition as an incredible opportunity to take a piece of intellectual property and try get it implemented in a clinical setting where it could be very valuable!
Matt: It is amazing to me to think that there was a better way to quantify the risk of PML that has been sitting on the bench this whole time. Speaking of PML, in layman terms, could you explain the JC virus and how your invention finds a new way to detect it?
Alison: Sure, the JC virus is a fatal opportunistic infection that can cause a debilitating disease called PML. PML is a potential side effect for people with chronic auto immune disorders taking immunosuppressive medication. One medication with notably higher risk of PML is called Tysabri. Tysabri is prescribed to Multiple Sclerosis patients (relapse and remitting type) who do not respond well to any other therapies. For many MS patients, Tysabri vastly improves their quality of life.
Unfortunately, since Tysabri carries the risk of PML, patients (and doctors) are hesitant to take/prescribe the medication. Our diagnostic has the potential to enable doctors to understand which patients might be at a higher risk of developing PML, by looking at levels of different forms of JC Virus in the blood. This is really important, because our test could help patients more accurately characterize their risk of PML, therefore allowing them to make the most informed treatment decision.
Matt: I understand that we are running out of time to vote. When is the deadline?
Alison: Voting ends this Friday, January 16th, at midnight PST.
Matt: OK, so I have to get my vote in quickly. How can I vote?
Alison: In order for our invention to pass to the final round of the competition, please click on the following link to vote: https://app2.pitchburner.com/s1/pitch?evtid=496182&subid=899804
Matt: This is very important research and on behalf of the MS community, thank you for bringing this from the bench to the bedside. I really enjoyed talking with you about this important research project and all the great work you are doing for people living with MS.
Alison: I wanted to thank you and your readers. As researchers, we don’t always have a chance to connect with the patient population that we are trying to help. I can’t tell you how insightful (and inspiring!) is was for me to speak with you and what an honor it is to connect with your readers. I wish we could have even more open dialogues between researchers and patients!
To support Alison’s team and her research project, please click here to vote: https://app2.pitchburner.com/s1/pitch?evtid=496182&subid=899804