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Rennebohm gift boosts UW multiple sclerosis research

July 16, 1998

A $600,000 gift from the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation will help UW–Madison researcher Ian Duncan accelerate work on a promising treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) and other myelin disorders.

Duncan, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine, has been making strides on a cell transplantation therapy that can repair nerve tissue damaged by MS. The disease attacks a protective sheath on nerve cells called myelin, and the resulting damage causes lesions on the brain and spinal cord and reduces nerve function.

More than 300,000 Americans suffer from MS, and another 200 people are diagnosed with the disease each week. Symptoms can range from mild to debilitating and include vision problems, speech disturbances, loss of coordination and paralysis. Scientists have not identified the underlying cause of the disease, but are making progress on treatments.

“We are extremely grateful to the Rennebohm Foundation for this funding, which really allows us to move up to the next level in our research,” Duncan said. “My hope is that within the next 12 to 18 months, the first phase of human clinical trials can begin.”

Duncan’s research to date has involved dogs with a genetic defect affecting myelin that’s similar to human diseases. Two years ago, Duncan successfully transplanted glial cells, which produce myelin, into areas of the spinal cord deficient in myelin in these animals and in rats with a similar disorder. The procedure produced significant growth of myelin in the treated areas.

Myelin serves as a form of insulation for nerves, allowing impulses to move freely from one part of the body to another.

This could be a landmark therapy in treating MS, Duncan said, since it would repair damaged tissue rather than only treating symptoms. Beyond MS, the treatment could be beneficial for an entire class of myelin-related disorders, including Lorenzo’s Disease (adrenoleukodystrophy) and Krabbe’s Disease, usually fatal diseases which strike children.

Duncan said the Rennebohm gift will help his team answer several important questions before human clinical trials can begin. “We have human glial cells now, but we have not proven that they will grow and survive in tissue culture,” he said. “We’re trying to create safe cell lines which could be preserved and used in future cell transplants.”

Key issues remaining are finding the most reliable source for cells for transplantation, and selecting the most appropriate patient population for the clinical trials, which would be overseen by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The actual transplant procedure is relatively uncomplicated, he said.

Duncan said the Rennebohm gift will allow him to add new postdoctoral researchers to his 12-member research team, bringing more focus to the unsolved issues.

William Young, an emeritus UW–Madison professor and Rennebohm Foundation board member, said Duncan operates one of only a few labs in the world doing this kind of work on myelin repair. “If he’s successful, this treatment could provide real help for people with MS,” Young said. “We’re delighted to support a program working to treat a disease that currently has no cure.”

The foundation was established in 1949 by Oscar Rennebohm, a successful businessman and former Wisconsin governor who owned the once-largest chain of drug stores in Madison. It supports a wide variety of community projects and agencies and has been a major benefactor of the university, with total UW–Madison gifts topping $15 million.

Tags: research