• By Duska Anastasijevic

Neurologist Recognized for Groundbreaking MS Research

April 13, 2016

Illustrations of damage to the myelin sheath that wraps around nerve fibers that look frayed

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Claudia Lucchinetti, M.D., will be awarded the 2016 John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research for her outstanding contributions to understanding and treating multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Lucchinetti is one of only a few neurologists in the world with expertise in neuroinflammation, and her research has led to paradigm shifts in our understanding of central nervous system demyelinating diseases over the past two decades.

Dr. Lucchinetti is chair of the Department of Neurology at Mayo Clinic, and the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Professor of Neurosciences.

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Her research focuses on mechanisms of demyelination — damage to the protective covering that surrounds nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. She also focuses on tissue injury among the family of central nervous system inflammatory demyelinating disorders that includes multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. Dr. Lucchinetti began to collect and analyze MS lesion brain biopsies 20 years ago and has created the world’s largest tissue bank of MS lesions in her quest to find effective treatments for this unpredictable and often disabling disease.

Her research has shown that the pattern of damage in brain tissue differs between patients with multiple sclerosis, but remains the same within any given patient. For the first time, this suggested that multiple sclerosis is a disease with fundamentally different targets and mechanisms of tissue damage in different patients.

Building on these seminal observations, Dr. Lucchinetti subsequently demonstrated that therapies may need to be individualized for patients on the basis of their specific tissue injury patterns, underscoring for the first time the importance of considering personalized medicine approaches in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Her landmark study, published in the Annals of Neurology in 2000, led her to launch MS Lesion Project, an international collaborative study that investigates the clinical, serologic, genetic and radiological aspects of the MS lesion. This work is funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Institutes of Health.

“As someone who has worked side-by-side with Dr. Lucchnietti, I can say first-hand that she is a thought leader sought out by colleagues around the world,” says John Noseworthy, M.D., president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, and a neurologist with expertise in MS. “Her expertise not only advances our understanding of the disease, but also moves the field forward to the benefit of patients at Mayo Clinic and people everywhere.”

Dr. Lucchinetti’ s research has also characterized the presence of early inflammatory cortical demyelination in multiple sclerosis. These findings have revolutionized thinking about the mechanisms responsible for lesion formation and disease progression. Additionally, they have opened avenues for new treatment strategies and led to the development of novel ways to use magnetic resonance imaging to observe and measure early cortical damage. Because cortical injury may be a key driver for disease progression in patients with multiple sclerosis, it is vital to better understand both how to measure and prevent such damage.

Finally, Dr. Lucchinetti’s research in neuromyelitis optica was fundamental to the recognition that this disease is distinct from multiple sclerosis, ensuring that patients with neuromyelitis optica receive appropriate care. Her work describing the unique microscopic features of neuromyelitis optica lesions was the first to show that this disease is an autoimmune disorder that involves antibody targeting of proteins located around blood vessels.

“I am truly honored, humbled and grateful to have been selected for this award,” says Dr. Lucchinetti. “I am thankful for the opportunity to work with a diverse group of investigators here at Mayo Clinic, all very passionate about wanting to make a difference in the lives of our patients.”

Dr. Lucchinetti’ s interest in MS dates back to her college summers working in the research lab of Moses Rodriguez, M.D., at Mayo Clinic. She decided to pursue a career in MS after caring for a young mother who lost her battle with a very rare and aggressive form of the disease. “At that moment, I decided that I would devote my career to trying to make a difference in the lives of MS patients,” says Dr. Lucchinetti.

Given jointly by the National MS Society and the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) since 1995, the $15,000 Dystel Prize is funded through the Society’s John Dystel Multiple Sclerosis Research Fund. The prize will be awarded to Dr. Lucchinetti at the awards luncheon on Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at the AAN annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. This is the second time that a Mayo Clinic researcher has won this prize. Brian Weinshenker, M.D., a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, was honored for his groundbreaking findings relating to the diagnosis and treatment of MS in 2011.

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