Yong, Dr. Voon Wee

2015 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Paving the road for better neurological outcomes in MS patients

Even though we might not hear about multiple sclerosis (MS) every day, Alberta has amongst the highest density of MS patients in the world. With approximately 14,000 Albertans battling the disease every day, it is important for researchers to stay focused on finding new ways to manage MS.

One such researcher is Dr. Voon Wee Yong, head of Translational Neuroscience at the University of Calgary, and director of the Alberta MS Network. Dr. Yong and his team work to reduce the burden of MS on patients and society.

“I’m a neuroimmunologist, which means I study the interaction between the immune system and the nervous system,” Dr. Yong says. “I’m guided by diseases such as MS, spinal cord injury and brain tumors, all of which involve some aspect of immune cells interacting with brain or brain cancer cells.”

Dr. Yong has been studying MS for more than 25 years and his interest was piqued by its destructive properties. More specifically, he was interested in understanding why MS targets the cells that it does, and how to recover from MS.

Understanding the disease

In a person with MS, the immune system attacks the spinal cord and brain, causing severe neurological damage to the patient.

Based on the understanding Dr. Yong developed of the cell biology involved in MS, the team has come to the realization that preventing further destruction of brain and spinal cord cells could be crucial to preventing the disease.

“We’ve been interested in how immune cells destroy the brain and spinal cord of individuals with MS,” Dr. Yong says. “We look at how to develop new medications to help prevent further attacks and assaults on the brain and spinal cord from immune cells.”

Dr. Yong says his team has been successful in understanding how to reduce the attacks on the nervous system, and the result of the success had led to clinical trials for medications he and his team have developed.

But the work doesn’t stop there as reducing the impact of MS is only half of the battle. Dr. Yong and his team intend to promote recovery in patients who have already received significant damage.

“The context of our work is on brain-immune interaction and how to promote interactions that are helpful and reduce interactions that are harmful,” Dr. Yong says.

Creating new hope

Dr. Yong says clinical trials are already underway in Calgary to understand the process of repairing the nervous system.

“We’ve also been interested in how the brain and spinal cord can recover from the injury inflicted by MS lesions,” Dr. Yong says. “Along the way we’ve been able to develop potential new medications for repair and are working with our clinical neurologists to administer these to patients with MS in clinical trials to determine if these medications are effective.”

Dr. Yong says these trials are important not only because they show the medication is successful, but because MS is a complicated disease so accessing as much data as possible is important to his work.

“MS is a very complex condition and there are some genetic elements involved,” Dr. Yong says. “But even in identical twins, there is only a 20 per cent chance that if one twin gets MS, the other twin will also be diagnosed. There’s a lot of other variables that account for someone getting MS or not.”

The research that Dr. Yong and the team at the University of Calgary are conducting give the medical community valuable data to some of the more difficult to understand elements of the disease. Dr. Yong has provided pioneering contributions to the medical community, and his work has paved the way for a more hopeful outcome in MS patients.