Press Release

Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Announces Recipients of the 2017 Marilyn Hilton Award for Innovation in Multiple Sclerosis Research

August 15, 2017

(Los Angeles) August 15, 2017 - The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced today that 17 researchers have been selected to receive the prestigious Marilyn Hilton Award for Innovation in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Research. The purpose of the award is to stimulate innovative and potentially paradigm-shifting research on progressive Multiple Sclerosis, which may otherwise go unfunded in times of fiscal restraint. The award, which is given in two categories – Bridging Award for Physician-Scientists and the Pilot Innovator Award – is awarded to 17 recipients, totaling almost $4 million in grants over a five-year period. Grant recipients will study topics ranging from mechanisms behind myelination and demyelination, to the use of advanced imaging techniques, and processes behind the causes of inflammation.

Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic and often debilitating disease of the central nervous system that affects 400,000 people in the United States. The Hilton Foundation believes that encouraging innovative research on MS is vital to understanding the causes of the disease, developing effective treatments, and eventually finding a cure. The Foundation’s MS program aims to fund research aimed at finding treatments for progressive MS and research into biomarkers and infrastructure that benefit the field as a whole. Another important aim of the Foundation’s MS research agenda is to support the work of promising young scientists, incentivizing them to stay in the field.

The award is named in honor of Marilyn Hilton, who endured the disease for decades yet continued to radiate a positive spirit and demonstrate resolve. Steven M. Hilton, her son and Foundation chairman, said, “Our family is intimately aware of the challenges a person living with MS faces on a daily basis. Those with MS and those who love them will benefit from this innovative research.“

Four of the 17 recipients will receive the Bridging Award for Physician-Scientists, which supports the work of postdoctoral fellows as they transition into faculty positions. Grant amounts awarded to these recipients range between $395,000-$620,000.

Below is a list of the recipients of the Bridging Award for Physician-Scientists:

  • Dr. Martina Absinta, National Institutes of Health: $585,000 to study how to reduce chronic inflammation in MS patients.
  • Dr. Sam Horng, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: $395,000 to study astrocytic regulation of immune cell activity during central nervous system inflammation.
  • Dr. Michael Kornberg, Johns Hopkins University: $620,000 to study signaling pathways leading to free radical damage in MS patients.
  • Dr. Jennifer Orthmann-Murphy, Johns Hopkins University: $620,000 to use advanced imaging techniques to study what role astrocytes cells in the cortex may play in promoting remyelination in MS.

Following is a list of the 13 recipients of the Pilot Innovator Award, aimed at stimulating paradigm-shifting research into progressive Multiple Sclerosis. Young scientists at an early stage of their careers often have the greatest potential for innovation, but often the least resources. The Pilot Innovator Award grants are designed to be small and short, allowing the investigators time and resources to show proof of concept, thus allowing them to gain enough data to apply for larger grants from the National Institutes for Health or the National MS Society. Each of the below recipients will receive $120,000 in funding.

  • Dr. Drew Adams, Case Western Reserve University, to study the unifying mechanisms all remyelinating molecules have in common and to share findings with the field of MS research.
  • Dr. Pavan Bhargava, Johns Hopkins University, to identify new biomarkers of inflammation and neurodegeneration using the plasma of patients with MS
  • Dr. Myriam Chaumeil, University of California, San Francisco, to develop an innovative neuroimaging method that will detect oxidative stress in patients with MS.
  • Dr. Alessandro Didonna, University of California, San Francisco, to study misfolded tau aggregates found in the brains of MS patients.
  • Dr. Valentina Fossati, New York Stem Cell Foundation, Inc., to study the properties of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells in MS.
  • Dr. Ari Green, University of California, San Francisco, to support a retinal method study of innate immune activation in MS, with a goal of advancing targeted therapeutic approaches.
  • Dr. Susie Huang, Massachusetts General Hospital, to develop imaging markers of axonal damage and myelin integrity in MS patients using ultra-high gradient MRI techniques.
  • Dr. Ethan Hughes, The University of Colorado, to study mechanisms regulating MS-related myelin injury and repair in cortical lesions.
  • Dr. Eve Kelland, University of Southern California, to study the potential of angiotensin 1-7 to promote oligodendrocyte progenitor cell remyelination.
  • Dr. Hyun Kyoung Lee, Baylor College of Medicine, study how targeting the Wnt receptor complex may increase myelin repair in MS patients.
  • Laura Piccio, Washington University, to identify biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid that may predict MS disease progression and responses to therapy.
  • Dr. Seth Smith, Vanderbuilt University Medical Center, to apply advanced imaging to the study of the cervical spinal cord in patients with MS.
  • Michael Sy, The University of California, Irvine, to study whether lower GlcNAc levels promote the progression of MS by preventing oligodendrocyte formation and reducing remyelination.

“My interest in studying multiple sclerosis was inspired by my father’s struggle with the disability he developed due to MS,” said Jennifer Orthmann-Murphy of Johns Hopkins University. “After over twenty years of accumulating physical limitations, my father is no longer the athletic, energetic lawyer of my youth, and cannot work or even provide his own self-care. This understanding of the devastating effects of progressive MS on my father, and my family, is the basis of my passion to understand the basic mechanisms of progressive disease.”

“Physician-scientists often find themselves at a disadvantage as they seek tenure-track faculty research positions because they have had less time over the course of their careers to pursue research interests,” said Elizabeth Cheung, senior program officer at the Hilton Foundation. “As these MDs/PhDs enter into their first faculty positions, they find themselves in hybrid roles, where they spend much of their time seeing patients, which generates revenue for the institution, rather than in the lab conducting research. The Bridging Award for Physician-Scientists will follow the researcher over a five-year time period and will provide incentive to institutions not only to hire these physician scientists for research purposes, but also to provide adequate resources so they may start their own independent labs.”

Launched in 2014 with a Request for Proposal (RFP) for biomarkers for progressive MS, the Hilton Foundation made six grants in 2015 totaling $4.5 million over four years through the Marilyn Hilton Award. Selections for the award recipients were made by the Hilton Foundation based on the recommendations from a scientific advisory committee composed of leading researchers from the MS field. The 2015 grant recipients included Dr. Peter Calabresi, Johns Hopkins University; Dr. Anne Cross, Washington University in St. Louis; Dr. Bill Rooney, Oregon Health & Science University; Dr. Eitan Akirav, Winthrop University Hospital; Dr. Fred Gage, Salk Institute for Biological Studies; and Dr. Katerina Akassoglou, Gladstone Institutes. Work on this initial round of grants is ongoing, though initial results have shown promise.

For more information about the award, please visit our Marilyn Hilton Award Page. For more information about the Hilton Foundation’s MS program, visit our website or contact Elizabeth Cheung.

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