By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology
Anne H. Cross, MD, is honored for multiple sclerosis research. The Manny and Rosalyn Rosenthal and Dr. John L. Trotter MS Center Chair in Neuroimmunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has received the John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the American Academy of Neurology. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to research in the understanding, treatment or prevention of multiple sclerosis (MS).
Cross discovered the destructive effects of immune B cells in MS.
MS attacks the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves of patients, causing pain, fatigue, vision and coordination difficulties. The cause is unknown and treatments are investigated.
“We want to know what causes MS. I don’t have any illusions that I’ll ever figure that out, but I hope that my colleagues around the world as a whole will get this figured out within a reasonable period of time,” said Cross.
The professor of neurology is one of two women to receive the John Dystel Prizeout of 25 people in the world who share it.
“That list of 24 people preceding me is quite a list of important people who made a lot of important contributions.”
Cross won the award for her pioneering work into the immune cells known as B cells; advancing new imaging techniques detecting MS activity; and exploring possible benefits of calorie restriction to reduce signs and symptoms of MS.
Cross transformed the field of MS research when, by studying an animal model of MS, she discovered that B cells play a critical role. The findings, which led her to study B cells in people with MS, were a direct challenge to the accepted dogma of the time, which held that MS was caused by a different immune cell type, the T cell. Cross later led the first clinical trial of rituximab, a B cell-depleting therapy for MS, which showed an 88 percent reduction in new MS lesions. While rituximab was never approved to treat MS, it helped pave the way for a related compound, ocrelizumab, which was approved as a therapy for MS by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017.
The link between B cell depletion and clinical improvements remains the focus of her research. Cross is now part of a multicenter study that includes 100 participants and ocrelizumab.
“It will help us understand MS if we know better how it is actually working in people to reduce relapses,” said Cross.
Cross is also continuing her work alongside Sheng-Kwei “Victor” Song, PhD, professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine, helping to pioneer a new imaging technique called diffusion imaging to track and measure nerve damage in MS patients.
“It’s very high resolution, microscopic level,” explained Cross. “It can look into the central nervous system noninvasively.”
The imaging is currently at the research level. Cross said it’s as good an a biopsy, which is something that’s not commonly done for MS. Diffusion imaging can help researchers determine best treatment options for MS patients.