Estelle-Bettelli-PhD-smiling-in-labMultiple sclerosis (MS) is extremely difficult to study because the structure the immune system attacks — called the myelin sheath — is buried deep in the brain and spinal cord.

“For autoimmune diseases that affect tissues like the skin, researchers can usually biopsy and study these samples,” says BRI’s Estelle Bettelli, PhD. “But the brain is such a complex organ that it would be too invasive to perform biopsies of multiple sclerosis plaques.”

That’s why Dr. Bettelli’s team develops sophisticated MS models to investigate its mysteries and pursue innovative therapies. Despite the pandemic, her team has kept their research moving forward, working toward solving some of the biggest mysteries of this complex disease. We recently asked her for an update on BRI’s MS progress.

What are some of your biggest research questions?

The cells that damage tissue in MS are remarkably diverse. We’re studying these cells’ characteristics, trying to find a common way to target them and determine how they impact disease progression.

We’re also looking at regulatory T cells, which are supposed to keep your immune system in check. We’re trying to understand why these cells don’t work properly in MS and allow your immune system to attack the myelin sheath. This will help us develop therapies that can slow the disease.

How will answering these questions improve MS treatment?

Several MS therapies are available, but no one treatment works for every patient. If we can better understand how different cells and cell changes cause the disease, we can match people with a therapy that fits their disease. The ultimate goal would be to keep those cell changes from happening and prevent MS.

How has your team adapted in the face of COVID-19?

The pandemic has transformed our day-to-day activities in the laboratory: We’ve had to organize different shifts of people working in the lab, reconfigure our workspaces and adjust the timing of the experiments. But thanks to the hard work and dedication of lab members and BRI’s excellent infrastructure, we were able to adapt quickly and continue our research with limited disruption.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had to consider how COVID-19 might impact people with MS and how their immune systems would respond to the virus. We also need to learn more about how therapies we use to treat MS might impact a patient’s immune response to COVID-19. We are designing approaches and applying for funding to pursue answers to these questions.

What motivates you to study such a complicated disease? Diagram-of-healthy-myelin-versus-damaged-myelin

Studying MS is a long, fascinating process of peeling away layers of two complex and fascinating systems: the immune system and the central nervous system (CNS).

The more we understand, the more questions emerge. But we are making progress. The biggest reward is finding something meaningful that impacts people’s lives.

What are your future research goals?

We still don’t have very good therapies for a type of MS called progressive MS, in part because we don’t have good models to study it. We are developing approaches to examine cells creating tissue damage in progressive MS. I would be really excited to find a better way to study progressive MS and find a therapy that could significantly limit it.

Fighting Diseases

September 11, 2020

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