October 20, 2003
Memphis Business Journals
Mark down multiple sclerosis as another research and clinical focus
in the Memphis drive to build a biotech industry.
After five years of work and $1.5 million in federal research money, neurologist Mike Levin at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is ready for prime time. His goal is to create an MS center in Memphis the equal of other centers at Harvard, Stanford and Cleveland.
MS has the advantage of being a growth field as well as consistent with a local focus on muscluoskeletal medicine. With no cure but plenty of promise, MS is also a growing area of research.
"We're at the kickoff of a combination of patient care and research for MS, which is a model that works well," says Levin, who will serve as center director. "I'm the MS guy. After five years, it's time to add another physician and a nurse."
Both the Hamilton Eye Institute and the planned UT Cancer Institute also use a blend of research, clinical care and academics. MS occurs when the sheath breaks down that wraps around nerves in the brain and spine. This sheath, known as the myelin, functions like the plastic insulation around a wire.
When it breaks down, electric signals don't always get through to muscles; a person afflicted with MS may want to move her hand, but the instruction only arrives sporadically. Although the disease occurs in the brain, it affects the rest of the body, which is one way it fits with the muscluoskeletal focus.
Levin was recruited from the MS Center at the National Institutes of Health to fill a 12-year void, after the late John Whitaker left to work in Birmingham.
Though nobody knows what causes MS, promising research is looking at the presence of white blood cells in the brain. They shouldn't be there. Levin and his team in the past year have made a significant contribution in suggesting the idea of molecular mimicry. It's a form of mistaken identity.
The theory holds that MS is stimulated by a virus. The immune system attacks the virus, but the white blood cells get confused and also identify myelin cells as the same virus. Whitaker demonstrated that injecting normal myelin into mice will produce an immune response.
"At some molecular level there's a protein in the body that looks so much like the virus that the antibodies attack both," Levin says.
The difference is that with MS patients, the white cells somehow manage
to cross the border into the brain, which is rich in defenseless myelin.
A national study found the drug natalizmab can stop the white cells from
reaching the brain.
Levin hopes to raise endowment funds that will then help attract more scientists and more NIH research grants. Bill Sledge is one of those helping him do that. He also helped recruit Levin.
"My wife has MS and it's been a slow, steady deprivation of her ability to walk," he says. "UT came to me seven years ago because they were trying to get a man here from Bethesda, one of the promising men of science."
The family sold its Coca-Cola bottling plant in 1988 and has used some of the money to support Levin's work.
"This guy is smart and he's had some significant breakthroughs," Sledge
says. "He could become the Jonas Salk of MS."
Copyright © 2003, American City Business Journals Inc.