Inaugural Metcalf Prize winner Kaylene Young’s stem cell research leads to potential new non-invasive treatment
A new pain-free treatment for multiple sclerosis using magnetism to stimulate brain repair is about to begin trials with patients in Hobart.
In multiple sclerosis, a person’s immune system attacks the insulation around their nerve cells. Without this insulation, nerves can’t reliably transmit signals to where they’re needed, leading to a range of often-debilitating symptoms.
Associate Professor Kaylene Young has been studying the insulating cells (called oliogdendrocytes) and the stem cells in the brain that make them (oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs).
“We know OPCs make new oligodendrocytes throughout your life,” explains Kaylene.
“In conditions like multiple sclerosis, you can lose a lot of insulating oligodendrocytes in one area and that forms a lesion. We’re looking at the ability of those OPCs to come in and try to repair that lesion and replace those lost cells.”
Kaylene’s lab at the University of Tasmania is the only MS research group in the world exploring the insulation repair potential of transcranial magnetic stimulation, a non-invasive form of magnetic brain stimulation that has been used in the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions.
Kaylene has teamed up with neurologist Professor Bruce Taylor, head of the MS clinic at the Royal Hobart Hospital, to bring the treatment to clinical trials.
“You put a circular magnet about the size of a saucer over the person’s head and turn it on for three minutes,” says Kaylene.
“It’s a very low level of stimulation; the person won’t feel anything. But it’s enough to stimulate electrical activity in the brain. The OPCs respond to that by making more new insulating cells.”
The initial clinical trial, with 30 people with MS, will start in July 2019 and aims to establish the safety of the procedure. The team will also measure the effect of the treatment by taking MRI scans before and after treatment to look for changes in the size of brain lesions. Assuming all goes well, larger trials will follow.
The new treatment grew from Kaylene and her colleagues’ 2008 discovery of OPCs in the mature brain, including the regions most prone to damage by multiple sclerosis.
More than a decade later, Kaylene is excited to be taking her research from the laboratory into the clinic. Along the way, in 2014, she was one of two winners of the first Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research for her work unravelling the biology and function of brain stem cells in neurodegenerative diseases.
Kaylene says the Metcalf Prize gave her the money to seed new projects while still maintaining an international profile, having returned to Australia following a postdoctoral position in London. It also allowed her to invest in people who worked in her lab as they established their careers.
"Winning the Metcalf Prize came at a really critical time. What I’ve achieved has really been helped by the prize and the financial support that went with it.”
Kaylene has also been awarded several NHMRC and ARC grants, won a 2015 Tasmania Young Tall Poppy Science Award, and helped develop a massive open online course (MOOC) called Understanding MS, which provides evidence-based information about MS, from basic biology to current treatments to living well with MS.
Hear Kaylene’s recent interview with Robyn Williams on ABC’s The Science Show.