Yong, Dr. V. Wee

2014 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

World Leader in Neuroimmunology and Multiple Sclerosis Research

Alberta has approximately 14,000 multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, one of the highest densities of MS cases in the world, costing Alberta over $1 billion loss to the economy. It is no surprise that MS has been called Alberta’s disease.

MS is an autoimmune disease where immune cells attack the protective covering of nerves in the central nervous system (CNS). Damage to the nerve covering can cause disruption of nerve impulses leading to fatigue, loss of coordination, weakness and cognitive impairment.

Dr. V. Wee Yong has dedicated his research career to understanding how MS and other neural injuries can be treated. As a world leader in the field of neuroimmunology (the cross road between immune and nervous system cells), Yong’s research has been innovative, transformative and impactful.

Motivated to Make a Difference

In 1989, Yong took his first faculty position at McGill University, where he began his research into neuroimmunology. He moved to the University of Calgary in 1996, giving up a tenured position at McGill, to take on new challenges.

Undeterred, Yong continued his research into MS and spinal cord injury, believing in the difference it could make and the lives he could change. “I’m motivated to improve the lives of those affected by the conditions we work on,” says Yong.

Neuroimmunology drew Yong in because of the nature of autoimmune diseases like MS. Instead of protecting oneself, immune cells attack the body.

“It has been recognized for some time that an overactive, exaggerated immune system directed against the CNS can promote toxicity, and we are trying to defend against that; however, in that mix there are some elements of the immune system that are beneficial,” Yong explains.

“There is the potential that if properly harnessed, the immune system directed against the CNS can be channeled to help recover from an injury. A key area of our research is thus to fine tune the yin and yang of immune cells.”

Game-Changing Research

Through this vision, Yong has contributed significantly to the field of neruoimmunology. He pioneered research into the role of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) in neural inflammation. Expanding on the biology, Yong discovered that abnormal MMPs harmed the CNS but discreetly expressed MMPs served an important role in nerve protection.

“We are trying to harness the beneficial aspects of inflammation, recognizing an immune response can have regenerative properties,” Yong says.

Yong led a successful team that has provided evidence for the therapeutic benefits of MMPs. They have pioneered many discoveries, one of which being a generic medication, minocycline, which inhibits MMP activity and alleviates disease severity in animals. With the success of the drug in the pilot and phase two trials, minocycline has since moved into two phase three trials.

“It’s very exciting. It’s actually quite rare, unfortunately, that laboratory discoveries make their way into clinical applications,” says Yong.

If successful in the definitive phase three trial, the orally-dosed minocycline should be a tremendous advantage for early MS patients over current MS treatments, many of which are injected, more toxic, and more than 300 times more expensive. Indeed, if proven successful in preventing the pre-MS condition known as clinically isolated syndrome from developing into MS, the findings would be revolutionary.

In the second phase three trial, minocycline is being tested to determine if it can promote recovery from traumatic CNS injury. If the trial is successful, Yong says emergency responders could use this drug to immediately promote spinal cord recovery in the event of an injury.

Giving Back

Aside from his research career, Yong is dedicated to giving back to the scientific community. Yong has graduated 13 PhD and eight MSc candidates and trained 10 clinical and 14 postdoctoral fellows. Twenty past trainees are now in faculty positions across North America, Asia and Europe, with several leading their research fields.

“I consider it a privilege as well as a duty to train the next generation, to foster the development of many potential scientists,” he says. Yong is the founding and continuing director of the Alberta endMS network that helps teach over 165 trainees on MS in the province.

In the community, Yong volunteers at the MS Society of Canada on the Medical Advisory Committee to ensure the money raised is put to the best use.

“It’s a privilege and an honour but also I think it’s a necessity,” Yong adds.