PhD student makes a promising start to research career

15 June, 2017

Ms Katherine Sanders from Bond University QLD has recently completed her MS Research Australia PhD scholarship investigating the role of gene regulation in MS.

Katherine Sanders has made some important discoveries during her PhD studies, contributing to our understanding of immune cell function and nerve degeneration in MS. In particular, she has provided key evidence for the diminished inflammatory activity suspected to occur in secondary progressive MS and began revealing some of the mechanisms that may contribute to ongoing neurodegeneration and disability. Her work also paves the way for microRNAs (miRNAs) to be used as biomarkers to diagnose and predict disease outcomes in MS.

Katherine investigated small molecules called miRNAs in people with MS. miRNAs are part of the cell’s machinery used to help switch on, or change the level of activity in different genes. This is one mechanism by which a particular gene, even though it is found in all of the cells in our bodies, can for example, be active in the brain, but dormant in the blood of the same person. They have been implicated in all sorts of normal body functions and in diseases. Since the types of miRNAs and their functions differ between cell types, Katherine set out to look directly at the miRNAs profile in both the immune system and the brains of people with MS.

She found that miRNAs were generally expressed at lower levels in secondary progressive MS (SPMS) and within a specific type of immune cell, leading to a reduced activity of those cells. This may help explain why immunosuppressive therapies are generally ineffective in SPMS.

Katherine also looked at MS brain lesions and the neighbouring brain tissues that appeared normal, or unaffected by MS, using brain tissue from the MS Research Australia Brain Bank. She discovered evidence that degeneration is occurring in areas of the MS brain thought to be healthy. This indicates that SPMS may be beginning before symptoms are clinically apparent or physical evidence can be detected by an MRI. This has important ramifications for the timing of future therapies into SPMS, indicating that they might need to be started before symptoms appear.

Dr Lisa Melton, Head of Research at MS Research Australia said ‘We are incredibly grateful to the Trish MS Research Foundation who generously supported this highly competitive postgraduate scholarship. Katherine has now completed her PhD making a significant contribution to the world of MS research and we look forward to seeing the full publication of her results. We will watch with interest as her work moves forward, hopefully leading to new approaches to treat, diagnose and predict disease outcome in MS’.

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