January 22, 2020  Print

Researchers from The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR) have received grant funding from MS Research Australia.

Professor Sanjay Swaminathan, Dr Grant Parnell, Mr Jeremy Keane and Mr Stephen Schibeci from WIMR’s Centre for Immunology and Allergy Research received funding for research projects focused on the role of genetics and immunology in the development and progression of multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is a chronic neurological disease, in which the immune system damages myelin – a protective sheath surrounding the central nervous system. The damage interferes with messages between the brain and other parts of the body.[1] The disease can cause a range of symptoms, including paralysis and tremors, chronic pain and fatigue. Currently, there are more than 25,000 Australians living with MS.[2]

Dr Parnell said, “We are working towards new therapies for MS to help reduce symptoms, and slow or prevent the disease from progressing.

“While we have made a lot of progress in MS research over the past few decades, there is still a lot that we don’t know about the disease. Funding is critical to ensure that we can continue our work, and better understand the causes of MS in the hope that we can prevent and cure the disease.”

The funding has been awarded as part of MS Research Australia’s 2019/2020 funding round.

Dr Matthew Miles, CEO of MS Research Australia, said, “MS Research Australia is delighted to announce $2.4 million in research funding for grants commencing in January 2020. Australia is home to exceptional talent in the area of MS research and we are excited to see the results of these WIMR researchers’ efforts in the coming years.

Their findings will contribute to our understanding of MS and accelerate progress towards achieving our ultimate goal to stop and reverse MS.”

Congratulations to our researchers.
About the research
Professor Sanjay Swaminathan is investigating the relationship between MS and the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), the virus responsible for glandular fever. EBV has long been implicated in the development of MS.
Professor Swaminathan’s team have identified an EBV gene that hijacks human genes in the immune cells they infect. Professor Swaminathan will now investigate how to block this ‘viral hijacking gene’ to reduce the growth of EBV-infected immune cells which, if effective, could help develop a new therapy for MS.

Although studies have shown that low vitamin D is associated with MS, clinical trials using vitamin D supplementation as a treatment have not proven successful. Dr Grant Parnell and his team have found that this may be because the form of vitamin D used in supplementation often relies on a two-step activation in the body, which may be sub-optimal in MS. This is caused by several genetic factors, including low amounts of activating enzyme. Researchers now aim to find out how to avoid these limits to response. This could lead to improved ways of exploiting vitamin D for therapy.


Three in every four Australians diagnosed with MS are women.[3] This phenomenon may be mediated by sex hormones, particularly oestrogen. Although females are protected from MS relapses during pregnancy (when oestrogen levels are high) clinical trials aimed at mimicking this pregnancy protection, using estradiol (a form of oestrogen), have been unsuccessful. Mr Jeremy Keane and his team have found that certain immune cells infected with EBV express MS risk genes differently in cells from men compared to those from women. The team will seek to determine if these differences are caused by different responses to sex hormones. The findings may be used for therapeutic benefit.

Mr Stephen Schibeci and his team have found that a protein made by EBV may control the activity of MS risk genes in immune cells. They now aim to determine if the EBV protein does this by binding to the MS risk genes, and if so, if this binding can be blocked with a molecule that will prevent the function of the EBV protein. Findings from this work may support new approaches to control EBV infection by using molecules that reduce the growth of EBV-infected immune cells. This could potentially lead to the development of new therapeutic options for MS.
MS Research Australia https://msra.org.au/what-is-multiple-sclerosis-ms/
[1] https://msra.org.au/what-is-multiple-sclerosis-ms/
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.