Multiple sclerosis research at the U of M

According to Emma Frost, a professional associate in the University of Manitoba’s faculty of pharmacy, multiple sclerosis (MS) is a regionalized disease. “We are advocating for patients who are suffering from a disease that is inherently prevalent in Manitoba,” added her colleague Mike Namaka, an associate professor in the same faculty.

Together Frost and Namaka chair the University of Manitoba’s Cellular Neuroscience Research Team (CNRT), which has just been awarded a $228,000 grant by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to perform pre-clinical trials, studying “how a substance called fatty acid amide hydrolase impacts the development of MS-like symptoms in mice and rats,” according to a U of M press release.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease where the myelin sheath, which normally coats and protects the body’s nerve fibers, breaks down. The body’s electric signals then lose fidelity and degrade as they travel down the unprotected nerves.
According to Namaka, having well insulated nerves “is essential for normal physiological function — blinking, moving, crying, writing, etc.. If that signal doesn’t get through the patients suffer clinical deficits because they can’t perform their daily activities.”

MS is most prevalent in young Caucasian women, aged 25-35, added Namaka, and it is three times more prevalent in women than men. “During the prime of their life, this disease slowly disables them and wrecks their quality of life.”
As mentioned above, MS is a regionalized disease, with Canada in general, and places like Winnipeg and Brandon in particular, having abnormally high numbers of cases.

Before forming the CNRT, Frost studied developmental diseases and myelin at the Manitoba Institute of Child Health, while Namaka focused his research on MS and pain. If these areas seem to be only loosely related, that is a misconception that Frost and Namaka are working hard to correct.

“Amazingly enough it all appears to be linked. We believe that there are similar molecular mechanisms underlying MS and pain or the induction specifically of neuropathic pain,” said Namaka. He added that through their research, he and Frost have found that similar cellular mediators are involved in pain transmission and myelination.

Namaka said when you consider these connections it makes sense that neuropathic pain — numbness, burning sensations, tingling — is the second worst disease-induced symptom suffered by MS patients.

According to the co-chairs, it was the combined expertise and recognition — both national and international — of their team and collaborators that attracted Pfizer to Winnipeg for their pre-clinical trials.

Pfizer’s endorsement of CNRT’s abilities “has a significant impact on the recognition of neuroscience here in Manitoba,” said Frost, who credited her team’s hard work and numerous publications — nine peer-reviewed articles in the last year, with three in the pipe — as what attracted this money to the U of M.

Namaka points out that Quebec is regarded as the predominant cellular research capital of Canada and that it’s “nice to finally get some recognition for the strong cellular expertise we possess right here in Manitoba.”

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