Multiple sclerosis think tank meets at N.C. Research Campus

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 13, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó The N.C. Research Campus reinforced its role as a pivotal player in the battle against multiple sclerosis Monday by hosting an international think tank on the disease.
Panelists from as far away as Switzerland and Great Britain discussed the role that genetics plays in the search for new treatments and a cure for MS. About 50 scientists and pharmaceutical industry representatives attended.
Fast Forward, the business development arm of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, co-hosted the event with the David H. Murdock Research Institute.
Murdock, the billionaire owner of Dole Food Co., built the Research Campus in downtown Kannapolis to focus on human health, nutrition and agriculture. Murdock’s research institute operates the world-class Core Laboratory.
“The Research Campus is unique because it houses so many specialities under one roof,” said Dr. Timothy Coetzee, president of Fast Forward.
The event, which was Fast Forward’s third MS think tank and the most well-attended, brought together researchers who discover drugs and industry leaders who commercialize and market them.
“Those worlds don’t always interface,” Coetzee said.
While scientists know more about MS than ever before, the gap in translating that laboratory knowledge into treatments has grown.
“Sometimes discoveries are made and nothing happens to move discoveries out of the lab and into commercialization,” said Dr. Simon Gregory, a Duke University scientist who specializes in MS research and has a lab in Kannapolis.
Events like Monday’s think tank help connect scientists with people who can take drugs to market, Gregory said.
“It’s a way to build bridges,” he said.
Gregory is part of Duke University’s effort to develop personalized medicine, a concept that gives hope to MS sufferers, Coetzee said.
With the state-of-the-art instruments at the Core Lab, scientists at the Research Campus have the potential to develop tests that physicians would use to diagnose MS and determine which treatments are best for individual patients based on their genetic profile, Coetzee said.
“They could take blood and make predictions based on how quickly the disease will progress and how the patient will respond to drugs,” he said.
Currently, MS has no cure or diagnostic test.
Doctors diagnose the unpredictable disease, which afflicts 400,000 Americans and attacks the central nervous system, by ruling out other ailments.
Kannapolis garnered attention last spring when Charlotte theater mogul Herman Stone gave $1 million to help fund MS research at the biotechnology hub.
Stone’s gift launched a fund drive to raise $5 million on the Web site
Stone, who has two children with MS, convinced Murdock to dedicate a space in the Core Laboratory for MS research.
The campaign will raise money to support Gregory’s work at the Research Campus. Gregory said he hopes to be conducting MS research in Kannapolis by the end of the year.
His team is developing methods to identify the genes responsible for complex disorders like MS. Current research focuses on turning off one of the culprit genes.
Eventually, Gregory said he would like to recruit Kannapolis and Cabarrus County MS sufferers as part of Duke’s long-term medical research study based at the Research Campus, which is named for Murdock.