Doctoral Students Track Clues to a Cure for MS in Melendez-Vasquez’s Lab

Oligodendrocytes developing in culture, from the immature stage (left) to mature (right). Oligodendrocytes are the cells that make myelin in the brain.

Multiple sclerosis (MS), which leads to severe neurologic disability, affects more than 400,000 individuals in the United States and about 2.1 million worldwide, but the origin and pathogenesis of this degenerative, chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system are for the most part unknown. Promising research is being carried out in the lab of Carmen Melendez-Vasquez, a member of the doctoral faculty in biology, who has long been searching for a cure.

A budding biochemist after earning a B.Sc. at Universidad Central de Venezuela, she then turned her mind to immunology, “because MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease,” she said, and followed that path of study at Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas (M.Sc., 1992), at London University (Ph.D., 1996), and as a postdoc at London University (1997) and NYU School of Medicine (1998–2003). She came to Hunter College in February 2007 and was appointed to the doctoral faculty that same year.

In her lab at Hunter, Dr. Melendez-Vasquez oversees dedicated young scientists—undergraduate and doctoral-student researchers. Their major focus is on myelin, the substance that wraps around nerve fibers and allows the nerve impulses to flow. “The overall goal of our research,” she explained, “is to understand the cellular mechanisms that regulate myelin formation in the peripheral and central nervous systems. This knowledge should aid in the development of therapeutic strategies to promote remyelination and, thus, lead to an amelioration of the disability seen in MS patients.”

In one study conceived in her lab and carried out entirely by her graduate students Tomasz Rusielewicz and Mateusz Urbanski, mice were engineered to lack a protein that inhibits myelination in the brain. Their results have been promising, in that remyelination and nerve repair was accelerated in these mice. Both students will cover the research in their dissertations and the published paper on this study is forthcoming.

The research was supported by a Concept Award from the Multiple Sclerosis Research Program (MSRP) funded by the Department of Defense. This program, initiated in 1992, is responsible for providing $18.1 million for innovative research on MS between 2009, when MSRP was initiated, and 2012.

—Jane House

Submitted on: FEB 1, 2013

Category: Biology, Faculty Activities