Ann Romney with Howard L. Weiner, MD, director and co-founder of the Partners MS Center and co-director of the hospital’s Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases. Photo credit: Len Rubenstein

Howard L. Weiner, MD, with Ann Romney Photo credit: Len Rubenstein

In a groundbreaking new research collaboration, BWH has partnered with Google Life Sciences (GLS) and Biogen to decipher why multiple sclerosis (MS) progresses so differently among individuals, and translate that information into new therapies and improved care. This partnership will boost BWH’s world-renowned clinical research program, which has been at the forefront of discovering treatment options for people with MS for more than 40 years.

The BWH research team is led by Howard L. Weiner, MD, director and co-founder of the Partners MS Center and co-director of the hospital’s Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases, and Tanuja Chitnis, MD, medical director for the Partners MS Center. The team aims to identify clinical, radiological, biological, behavioral and environmental factors that correlate with MS disease severity and progression.

“This partnership will allow us to look at MS with an unprecedented scope and depth,” says Weiner. “By bringing together our clinical and research expertise with a data analysis powerhouse like GLS and a leading developer of MS drugs like Biogen, we stand to accelerate the pace of research and open doors to life-changing discoveries.”

The team recently launched two research initiatives to harness the power of big data and offer insights into new treatment possibilities and more individualized care:

  1. The SysteMS study, in which GLS researchers will provide customized analyses of the clinical and research data collected from MS patients and identify the main factors associated with the severity and progression of the disease.
  2. A pilot study to test the feasibility of a wearable device developed by GLS to measure the mobility, gait and dexterity of MS patients.

Working toward new understandings

The SysteMS study builds on BWH’s landmark Comprehensive Longitudinal Investigation of MS (CLIMB)—a large-scale, long-term study of patients with MS, led by Weiner and Chitnis. In the 14 years since its inception, CLIMB has collected yearly blood samples, MRIs, neurological exams and questionnaires from more than 2,000 MS patients. CLIMB is unique among these kinds of MS studies because the biological samples from large groups of study participants are integrated into the research data.

For SysteMS, GLS scientists will sift through clinical and research data, looking for differences that may hold keys to understanding individual disease severity and progression.

“Working together with GLS investigators, our goal is to associate detailed biological measures with MS disease severity. This may identify new therapeutic and preventative treatments for MS,” says Chitnis.

Tracking activity, gaining insights

Wearable individual activity trackers, such as those made by Fitbit and Jawbone, are becoming increasingly mainstream. In their second project, BWH and GLS scientists will explore whether a specially designed tracker can be an MS research and clinical tool. Biogen’s experience with wearable devices will help guide the project.

The custom-built study device will measure daily functions of MS patients, including gait, mobility and dexterity, and provide an unprecedented view of the day-to-day abilities and challenges of people with MS, paving the way for testing treatments for the progressive phases of MS.

“This collaboration will give us all access to a wealth of informative data in a way that’s never been possible before,” says Chitnis. “In addition to strengthening our research efforts, it can help Biogen develop new, more effective drugs. It will also help us understand which patients respond best to particular therapies, allowing for personalized or individualized therapy in MS.”

After gathering initial feedback from a small group of MS patients, investigators hope to gather round-the-clock data with a larger group to gain new insights.

“BWH has collected patient data from decades of experience in patient-centered research,” says Weiner. “By combining our strengths with the unique expertise of GLS and Biogen, we can take on MS from multiple angles, maximizing our potential to open up new frontiers in how we diagnose, monitor and treat MS.”

This story originally appeared in Brigham and Women’s Magazine: Fall 2015.