Can companies work together to find better models for this neuroinflammatory disorder? Scientist Joel Kaye thinks so and he’s formed a consortium to prove it.

You might say that multiple sclerosis (MS) behaves like a car that just lost its brakes. When myelin, the fatty sheath covering nerve cells is attacked and destroyed, the central nervous system (CNS) can’t communicate properly. Basic functions—from speech and eyesight to coordination and urinary function—pay the price. 

Modeling this cascade of events so we can understand it better basically follows two avenues. Researchers rely primarily on the experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) model to combat neurological inflammation and improve relapse rates that occur as a result of the warring nerve cells. A few other models—the cuprizone model described here being one example—enable scientists to look at demyelination independently of the autoimmune effects of MS.

But MS is a complex dance between the immune system and the CNS. The disease doesn’t give up easily and even if you stem the volume of relapses, the disease soldiers on. How then can one model the disease differently in order to find more success in the clinic? These were the questions crossing Joel Kaye’s mind last year when he attended the European Committee for Treatment and Research of Multiple Sclerosis.  Kaye, a Project Leader at Teva Phamaceuticals’ Pharmacology Unit in Israel, holds a PhD in Immunology from the Weizmann Institute of Science. He focuses on models of inflammation, MS and other neurodegenerative disorders, but he typically doesn’t attend MS meetings despite 20 years of active research in the MS field. This event was an exception, and as he strolled past the many papers on MS models it struck him. “We are all doing the same stuff. We all have our own drugs but we are all using the same models and we are all reading the same literature and we haven’t really moved on from the standard battery of preclinical testing that we do for MS,” said Kaye.

Kaye began to entertain the notion of bringing together pharmaceutical companies to figure out how to move the needle. He was unsure at first about how to approach them. Kaye worried his industry competitors might think he was using the group to gain intelligence about their drug pipelines. Charles River, which partners with many different drug companies on early CNS drug discovery projects but doesn’t patent or market its own drugs, offered to be an intermediary and host the meeting, which was held five months ago in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Eureka was at that meeting, which also included guests from the academic world: Harvard and UC-San Francisco to name a few. We caught up with Kaye in late summer to discuss the progress of the MS Consortium, its short-term and long-term goals the immediate challenges it is facing in meeting those goals. Here is an edited version of the interview, which was conducted by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery.

How many companies have signed up for the MS Consortia and was it hard convincing them to get on board?

JK: It wasn’t that difficult, though it took some time for them to get over some of their initial suspicions. The members of the consortium include Merck, Biogen, Teva, Genentech, AbbVie, Novartis, UCB and Charles River.

What are the goals of the consortium? What does it want to do?

JK: Our initial goals were to map out our capabilities, identify the knowledge gaps in MS research and decide what we needs to be done to model those gaps. The ultimate goal of the consortium is to figure out how to develop new models to fill those gaps.

Are there other consortia taking the same approach?

JK: In the MS area, the only one I know of is the International Progressive MS Alliance. They have brought together industry and academics in order to answer questions on how to achieve medications for progressive MS.

Have you mapped out your capabilities and gaps?

JK: Yes, that was one of the main achievements of our first meeting. The mapping showed that we are all working on all kinds of models, from EAE to demyelination. In terms of gaps, I got the distinct impression that there were three areas of MS research that the current models don’t really support or measure: neurodegeneration, demyelination and progression. Measuring progression is also the main goal of the International Progressive MS Alliance, but we still think it’s a gap we need to answer.

Why is it so important to study progressive MS?

JK: Because most of the approved disease modifying strategies only treat the relapsing or remitting phases. While they are effective studies are finding that it doesn’t really matter if you inhibit the number of relapses. Patients will still progress in some way.

What’s next for the consortium?

JK: We hope to publish a white paper soon publicizing the existence of the consortium, explaining why we formed and what our mission is. 

Is it a bit like herding cats, getting labs to work together to develop a single model?

JK: I don’t know of any precedent like it in MS. Sandy Hodgson  [Charles River’s Director of Science, Research and Discovery] came up after the first meeting and said it was the first time he had seen so many members from different companies sitting in the same room in this kind of manner. He was very impressed that we managed to get that many companies together in one room. Going forward, the consortium is going to have to figure out a way to work together. I could envision a couple of ways. Consortium members could perhaps jointly fund one of the academic labs to develop a particular type of model or they could fund a common experimental plan that would be carried out by Charles River.

Are you excited about the possibilities?

JK: I am. I actually posted on Facebook the evening after the meeting that I thought it was the highlight of my career.

How to cite:

McEnery, Regina. In MS Research, It Just Might Take an Industry. Eureka blog. Oct. 25, 2016. Available: http://eureka.criver.com/in-ms-research-it-just-might-take-an-industry/