A $33.8 million gift has been donated to the University of British Columbia and VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation for multiple sclerosis (MS) research and care—the largest known donation ever for MS research worldwide.
The private donation was made by a B.C.-based philanthropist who believes comprehensive contributions to science and medicine can quickly advance solutions and treatments across diseases for patients in B.C., across Canada and around the world.
This gift will be used to establish the B.C. MS Cell Therapies Translational Research Network, or MS Research Network, a world-class research and patient-care hub that will use the latest advances in cell and gene engineering to develop, manufacture, and test next-generation cell-based therapies. It will also help augment clinical services for patients and their families.
A patient’s perspective
For MS patient advocate Heidi Scott, who was diagnosed in 2015, this donation is a beacon of hope for patients not only in B.C. but globally.
“Research is care,” says Scott, a patient at the Vancouver Coastal Health-operated MS Clinic in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. “My hope is that this investment will help integrate research into clinical care in hospital and community settings so that more patients have the option to be involved in research that contributes to improved therapeutics.”
Scott, who lives in B.C.’s West Kootenay region, experienced intermittent symptoms such as fatigue, vision problems, and coordination issues for several months before she was finally diagnosed. She is now on immunosuppressive therapy that is working well at controlling her symptoms. However, the treatment has to be administered via intravenous infusion in hospital every six months. She will also need to remain on the drug—which causes her to be immunocompromised and at risk of serious illness from viruses—for the rest of her life.
“It is tremendously exciting that, through this investment, there might one day be therapies for MS patients that won’t compromise the immune system or require regular infusions,” says Scott. “The more knowledge we can uncover about MS, the better understanding we will have about prevention and what causes the disease.”
‘The potential to conquer MS’
MS is a progressive, life-changing autoimmune disease that affects patients in the prime of their lives, typically between the ages of 20-49. In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, an insulating layer that forms around nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body.
As a clinician-scientist who has worked with patients for more than 20 years, UBC professor and MS Clinic neurologist Dr. Anthony Traboulsee sees the debilitating effects of MS on individuals and their families every day.
“It breaks my heart to see patients I’ve known since their diagnosis continue to decline due to a current lack of treatment options,” says Dr. Traboulsee. “These patients don’t have five or 10 years to wait, but through participation in early-stage clinical trials for promising new therapies, we can give them a greater chance at success. Thanks to this investment, I can envision a future where we deliver innovative, lifesaving therapies that have the potential to conquer MS one day.”
For Dr. Megan Levings, a professor in UBC’s department of surgery and school of biomedical engineering, this funding will help recruit world-leading scientists to develop cell and gene therapies. Dr. Levings was among the first researchers in the world to demonstrate that regulatory T-cells, a special type of white blood cell, could be used as a cellular therapy to help control the body’s harmful immune responses.
“In cancer treatment, we know that T-cell therapies can be dialed up to help the immune system fight against cancer and infection,” says Dr. Levings. “With MS, the goal is to dial down the body’s immune response that leads to disease. Through our research, we want to do for MS what has been done for cancer.”
Dr. Virginia Devonshire, director of the MS Clinic, agrees that the funding will transform MS patient care.
“This gift allows us to better translate research discoveries into clinical practice and allow B.C. patients to be the first to benefit from discoveries made here at home by participating in clinical studies,” says Dr. Devonshire.
Filling the gaps in MS research and care in B.C.
Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world, with more than 4,000 people newly diagnosed each year. Despite UBC being a powerhouse of biomedical research, most MS patients in B.C. whose lives may depend on next-generation therapeutics do not benefit from the university’s discoveries.
There are gaps in B.C.’s research capacity that impede the delivery of advanced therapeutics developed in the lab into treatments given to patients. The $33.8 million gift will help to fill these gaps, enabling the rapid acceleration of new disease-modifying therapeutics to move through the development pipeline to reach patients faster. At UBC, $14.85 million will support recruitment of world-class researchers, while $15 million will go toward biomanufacturing infrastructure for local development and clinical testing of homegrown cell and gene therapies. The MS Research Network will collaborate with research partners across the province, country and globe to leverage advancements with the potential to improve outcomes for patients with MS sooner.
“We are beyond grateful to this incredibly generous donor for choosing to invest in MS research right here at UBC,” says UBC Faculty of Medicine Dean and Vice-President, Health, Dr. Dermot Kelleher. “Thanks to this gift—the largest ever made by an individual to the UBC faculty of medicine—a new era of MS research is unfolding that has the potential to transform patient care in B.C. and beyond.”
In addition, $4 million has been committed to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to support the development and delivery of a more robust, integrated and comprehensive model of care within the MS Clinic, and to augment existing services with digital tools and lifestyle programs that significantly improve quality of life for patients.
“This philanthropic support will help VCH kickstart the delivery of an interlocking suite of mental health, rehabilitation and digital services tailored to the specific needs of patients and their families,” says VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation President and CEO Angela Chapman. “Ultimately, patients will be receiving better care and an improved quality of life – and that’s the goal.”
While new clinical trials are not yet underway, patients who are interested in participating in future MS research in B.C. are invited to sign up through REACH BC, a provincial platform that connects British Columbians with health research opportunities.