Dr. George Robertson
New frontiers in multiple sclerosis research:
There is currently no way for doctors to tell if a new multiple sclerosis (MS) patient has an aggressive or relatively benign form of this potentially disabling disease. Yet it can take as long as 15 years to determine that someone has benign MS. “The distinction is critical,” says Dr. George Robertson, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pharmacology. “The drugs are expensive, pose side-effects, and are only effective against the relapsing-remitting form of MS.”
Dr. Robertson is working with Dr. Virender Bhan, Head of Dalhousie’s Multiple Sclerosis Research Unit, and post-doctoral fellow Dr. Andrea Hebb, to identify genes and proteins associated with the different forms of MS. Their goal is to develop a blood test that lets doctors know what kind of MS a patient has at the onset of disease.
Thanks to Margot Spafford of Halifax, the researchers are well on their way – Ms. Spafford’s $55,000 contribution to MS research through Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation has enabled them to secure an additional $55,000 from Genome Canada to develop this important diagnostic tool. The MS Society is funding Dr. Hebb’s involvement in the project.
But there’s more to the story than the diagnostic test. Dr. Robertson’s discoveries about MS-related proteins may point the way to a cure for MS. He and a colleague have worked with a pharmaceutical firm to develop a drug that may stop the immune system from destroying the nerves’ protective myelin sheath. The researchers hope to test this drug in MS patients within the next two to three years. If proven safe and effective, this new drug could dramatically improve the lives of people with MS – and possibly even rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune diseases, says Dr. Robertson.
Remarkably, this same drug may also help treat cancer. The researchers believe it will make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy. It is currently being tested against myoblastic leukemia in phase I clinical trials.