When the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) convenes this week in Dallas for its fourth annual forum, Cleveland Clinic neurologist Jeffrey Cohen, MD (shown with a patient above), will take the helm for the start of a three-year term as ACTRIMS Chair.
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Consult QD caught up with Dr. Cohen, Director of the Experimental Therapeutics Program in Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research, to learn more about ACTRIMS and his vision for it — and to get a preview of this year’s forum, which runs from Feb. 28 to March 2.
Q: Tell us about ACTRIMS. What sets it apart from other professional organizations dedicated to MS?
Dr. Cohen: ACTRIMS is a voluntary community of leaders from the U.S. and Canada dedicated to the treatment and research of MS and related diseases. It was founded in 1995 and has really grown in recent years, mirroring the rapid changes in the field of MS itself. We anticipate that ACTRIMS will soon be regarded as hosting the preeminent MS scientific meeting in North America.
We put a strong emphasis on developing young clinicians and investigators, through education and mentoring, as well as on promoting their interactions with funding entities, institutions, industry and senior counterparts in the field. We also support young scientists with special course summits and provide travel and tuition grants for attendance at our meetings and events.
Our main activity is the annual ACTRIMS forum. The first independent forum was held in 2016 with about 600 participants. This year we expect to double that number. The meeting is unique in that it has a single track, with all participants going to the same activities. This format builds cohesion and gets everyone up to speed on cutting-edge developments.
Every three years, we hold a conference in conjunction with our European counterpart, ECTRIMS, which typically attracts more than 5,000 attendees. The next one will be in 2020 in Washington, D.C.
Q: What goals do you have for ACTRIMS as you take the helm?
Dr. Cohen: I aim to further foster partnerships among MS research entities. A number of other societies have interests that overlap those of ACTRIMS — the North American Imaging in Multiple Sclerosis Cooperative, the International Multiple Sclerosis Visual System Consortium and the European Charcot Foundation, to name a few — and there are many advantages to working together. We aim to create a regular presence for these groups at our annual forums and to also participate in their meetings
Another example of such a partnership is with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. They present their Barancik Prize for innovative research in MS at our annual forum, and the awardee gives a talk on the winning research.
Q: What’s in store at this week’s forum?
Dr. Cohen: We have an exciting lineup of interactive sessions covering cutting-edge research and clinical topics, presented by young clinicians and investigators as well as by established leaders in the field. About 200 posters will be showcased in two poster sessions. A resident forum includes experts who have pursued different career paths — in clinical medicine and research — as well as representatives from the National Institutes of Health and other granting agencies.
This theme of this year’s forum, “Precision Medicine Approaches for MS: Scientific Principles to Clinical Application,” is particularly timely. Major advances have swept through the field in recent years, increasingly allowing us to treat patients as individuals rather than rely on general strategies for this diverse and complex condition.
Q: You’ll be presenting as well. Can you share what you’ll be discussing?
Dr. Cohen: As part of the pre-meeting CME course, I am giving a talk on my special area of interest, cell-based therapies for neuroprotection and repair. Great strides have been made in this novel approach to MS therapy in recent years. Just this month, autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation was endorsed by the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation (ASBMT) as a treatment for refractory relapsing MS, as outlined in a new ASBMT position statement for which I served as lead author (Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2019 Feb 19 [Epub ahead of print]).
Q: What are some other top developments in MS right now?
Dr. Cohen: We now have a broad range of treatment options for MS, which is quite a change from just a decade ago. In addition to the new and upcoming stem cell therapies, there are now 16 drugs approved, with several additional promising ones in the pipeline.
Another interesting area, which will of course be a big part of the meeting, involves precision diagnostic tools, many of which have been developed for other diseases that could apply to MS. More-sophisticated imaging techniques and emerging pathological, genetic and immunological biomarkers can help distinguish MS from similarly presenting conditions, further refine diagnostic criteria and better monitor disease progression and therapy efficacy.
This is an exciting time in MS care and research. We are starting to make significant headway in understanding and treating even the progressive form, which is particularly challenging.