It was during his early days as a doctor that Howard Weiner, MD, director and co-founder of the Partners Multiple Sclerosis Center at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, treated a young father who had recently experienced a very bad multiple sclerosis (MS) attack. Weiner immediately identified with his patient: he was about the same age, and he also had two boys. It hit him on an emotional level that there was no cure for MS.
Weiner was also attracted to the possibilities that virology and immunology held in finding a cure for this disease, which affects 2.3 million people around the world, according the MS Society. Based on Weiner’s 30 years of research, vaccines are now being tested in MS, diabetes and, most recently, in Alzheimer’s disease.
This week, we chatted with Weiner about his upcoming presentation at the World Medical Innovation Forum, which will take place in Boston from April 27 to 29, and about his perspective on finding a cure for MS.
Q: What’s the focus of your talk at the World Medical Innovation Forum?
I’m going to talk about a big study we’re working on, which is called the CLIMB Study. This study has 2,000 patients in it, and we’re trying to come up with individualized medicine for these patients. We want to figure out why some patients do well on certain therapies and why other patients don’t. We’d love to come up with a blood test to diagnose MS.
Q: You wrote a book called “Curing MS: How Science Is Solving the Mysteries of Multiple Sclerosis.” I love your use of the word “mysteries” in the subtitle of your book, especially since there seem to be so many unknowns with MS. What mysteries have you started to solve?
One of those mysteries involves the mechanisms that are associated with the disease, and what makes one patient different from another. I’m actually writing another MS book that will follow up on that. That’s called “MS: A Cure Within Reach.” One of the things that we’re talking about is the progression of the disease. So, someone comes down with MS, and we’re able to give them a treatment so that it doesn’t progress further. I’m really excited about some new approaches and new treatments we’re working on for the progressive form of MS, for which there’s no treatment today.
We’re also working on the ultimate idea of a vaccine for MS so that nobody gets it. That involves studying the gut in MS patients and how that relates to the disease.
Q: You’ve created a 21 point unifying hypothesis on the etiology and treatment of MS. Without going into all 21 points, what can you share about what this means for the treatment and greater understanding of MS?
A major theme focuses on the immune system and how it drives the disease. Another theme relates to imaging and looking at the brain; we now have stronger magnets – including a 7 Tesla magnet – that help us take a really in-depth look at the brain. We may also be able to image new cells in the brain. They’re called microglial cells. Another theme focuses on understanding the progressive nature of the disease.
Q: You treat patients with MS. Tell me about that experience.
I just saw a young woman who had very bad MS, and we were able to treat her very aggressively. She’s a lovely young woman. She’s engaged and she’s working normally. That real-world experience is very gratifying. Unfortunately, I also just saw a male patient whose MS had started late; we weren’t able to treat it. Today, he’s quite disabled.
I have conflicting emotions when I’m seeing patients. The real world is confronting a person with the disease and how it affects their body.
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.
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