2010 Zülch Prize awarded to multiple sclerosis researchers

British and Austrian scientists receive award for basic neurological research

September 06, 2010

Alastair Compston and Hans Lassmann are this year’s recipients of the K. J. Zülch Prize for basic neurological research. In bestowing this award, the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation is honouring two scientists who have made crucial contributions to research on multiple sclerosis. Alastair Compston’s work has provided important insights into the genetics and treatment of multiple sclerosis. Hans Lassmann was responsible for the discovery that multiple sclerosis is a heterogeneous disease that can vary from one patient to the next. The 2010 Zülch Prize will be presented to the scientists on September 10th in Cologne.

Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common diseases of the nervous system. It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the patient’s own body - in this case the layer of insulation that surrounds the projections of nerve cells. This layer, which is known as the myelin sheath, is slowly destroyed by inflammatory reactions. The immune system forms antibodies that damage the myelin. As a result, the affected neurons can only transmit signals to a limited extent or are prevented completely from doing so. This causes a wide variety of disturbances to the nervous system, ranging from vision and swallowing disorders to tiredness and paralysis.

Alastair Compston and Hans Lassmann are considered leading experts in the field of multiple sclerosis. Alastair Compston is Head of the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge in England. The London-born neurologist has been researching the causes and treatment of multiple sclerosis for over 30 years. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium in 2001, a research association that aims to identify risk genes for the disease. Thanks to this large-scale genetic analysis, increasing numbers of gene mutations have now been identified that can increase or reduce susceptibility to multiple sclerosis.

Alastair Compston is also conducting research into the effect of a potential new active agent against the development of the disease, the antibody alemtuzumab. Certain immune cells, the T lymphocytes, migrate from the blood to the brain and cause inflammation. This process can be prevented using alemtuzumab. According to Compston, alemtuzumab can relieve the symptoms experienced by patients in the early stages of the disease. In patients with advanced multiple sclerosis, however, it is ineffective. This discovery shows that the progress of the disease is determined by different factors at different stages. The immune system dominates the course and development of the disease in the early stages, while neurodegenerative changes in the nervous system predominate in the later stages.

Heterogeneous disease

Not only do the different stages of multiple sclerosis differ from each other, the nature of the disease also varies from patient to patient. This insight is largely due to the research carried out by Hans Lassmann. A native of Vienna who teaches and researches at his city’s university, Lassmann succeeded in differentiating between four different disease types on the basis of morphological studies. It emerged here that different types of cells are responsible for the destruction of the myelin sheath surrounding the neurons. Therefore, multiple sclerosis is a heterogeneous disease that must be treated on an individual basis. As an example, Hans Lassmann succeeded in demonstrating that patients with type II of the disease, who do not respond to treatment using anti-inflammatory steroids, can benefit from plasmapheresis. This involves the removal from the blood of the immune system antibodies that cause the disease.

Through his classification of multiple sclerosis, Hans Lassmann has raised the question as to whether the disease actually represents a single entity, or whether it involves several different types of disease. As a result he has made a significant contribution to the quest for new treatments, which are tailored to the individual form of the disease.

The presentation of the Zülch Prize will take place at 10 a.m. on Friday, September 10, 2010 in the Gürzenich Hall in Cologne. Reinhard Hohlfeld, Director of the Institute of Clinical Neuroimmunology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, will deliver the laudation for Alastair Compston; the laudation for Hans Lassmann will be given by Hartmut Wekerle, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried. After the laudations, the prize winners will report on their research.

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