Veteran CHOP Researcher Receives MS Award

02/19/2013

At a recent event in Cherry Hill, N.J., longtime Children’s Hospital researcher Judith Grinspan, Ph.D., received the “Professional Impact Award” from the Greater Delaware Valley Multiple Sclerosis Society. Dr. Grinspan has spent more than 25 years examining how multiple sclerosis damages the nervous system, and ways that damage might be repaired.

Dr. Grinspan was the first researcher to receive this new award from the Greater Delaware Valley Multiple Sclerosis Society. Serving Philadelphia and its surrounding counties as well as southern New Jersey, the Delaware Valley Chapter raises funds to support multiple sclerosis research and patient assistance, and publishes the MSConnection newsletter.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an often debilitating chronic disease of the central nervous system in which myelin — the fatty sheath that insulates the nerves — is damaged, leading to nerve signaling loss. Symptoms of MS include numbness, weakness in the limbs, vision problems, and progressive disability. MS affects approximately 90 out of 100,000 people, and is mainly seen between the ages of 20 and 40. Pediatric MS is less common, representing perhaps 5 percent of all MS patients.

There is no cure for MS. While a variety of drugs exist to manage the disease’s symptoms and to slow its progression, current treatments are only effective up to a certain point, Dr. Grinspan pointed out.

After receiving her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Pennsylvania and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at CHOP under David Pleasure, M.D., Dr. Grinspan joined CHOP’s faculty in 1989. Including her postdoc, she has been conducting multiple sclerosis-related research since 1986, she said.

Much of Dr. Grinspan’s research has been devoted to better understanding oligodendrocytes, cells of the central nervous system that produce myelin, which dates to her time working with Dr. Pleasure. She originally began researching MS because Dr. Pleasure needed an expert in primary tissue culture, and found the work his lab was doing on oligodendrocytes and myelination (the development of the myelin sheath) to be “a good fit for my interests in combining basic cell biology and understanding of disease,” she said.

“MS is an interesting disease, and also it’s a significant disease,” Dr. Grinspan noted. In addition, the research performed by her team has the possibility to be transitional, she added.

Her work on oligodendrocytes recently led to a collaboration with neonatologist Rebecca Simmons, M.D., examining intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), a relatively common complication of pregnancy. The researchers looked at the process of oxidative stress — an imbalance between free radicals and free radical scavengers that is commonly associated with prematurity and IUGR.

Oxidative stress can lead to white matter injury and insufficient myelin, which can increase the risk of newborns being born with developmental delays that can lead to cognitive deficits or cerebral palsy. Oxidative stress is also present in multiple sclerosis, and is thought to damage oligodendrocytes in much the same way.

In their search for ways to treat oxidative stress, the researchers examined the impact bone morphogenetic proteins (BMP) have on the development of oligodendrocytes. Previous work by Drs. Grinspan and Simmons showed that BMP inhibits oligodendrocyte maturation, so the researchers used cell culture and animal models to show that oxidative stress arrests myelination through BMP.

If BMP signaling could be arrested in fetuses or newborns or in adults with MS, the hope is that the development of diseases like cerebral palsy or MS could be stopped in their tracks.

Overall, Dr. Grinspan’s work wouldn’t be possible without funding from organizations like the Multiple Sclerosis Society. “I am honored to have won this award and am thankful that the MS society has enabled me to do this research through their continued support,” Dr. Grinspan said.