Dr. Laura Balcer '87 Wins Prestigious Prize for Novel Team Approach in Fighting MS

December 17, 2015

Around 10 years ago, Laura Balcer '87, MD, MSCE, professor of neurology, population health, and ophthalmology, was introduced by her mentor and colleague, Steven Galetta, MD, the Philip K. Moskowitz, MD Professor and Chair of Neurology, to two fellow physician scientists who were pursuing research on Multiple Sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the seamless flow of information between the brain and the body. 

She and Dr. Galetta had recently started using optical coherence tomography (OCT), which creates a detailed, 3-D picture of the retina at the back of the eye, to investigate the loss of axons and nerves in the eye and visual pathway that is characteristic of MS. “The eye is really the only place in the nervous system where we can see those nerve cables without the protective myelin,” Dr. Balcer explained. 

Their meeting with these two new colleagues turned out to be a forever fruitful one. Peter Calabresi, MD, is a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and director of its MS Center. Elliot Frohman, MD, PhD, is a professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics, and ophthalmology, at the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, and director of its Clinical Center for MS. 

The collective team realized that they had the makings of a collaboration with the potential to unlock new ways of approaching the disease. “Could we use the eye as a window, and as a way to model for the disease process, in patients with multiple sclerosis?” Dr. Frohman remembered thinking.

An Award-Winning Partnership 

Fast forward to 2015, when it was recently announced that Dr. Balcer and colleagues have won the prestigious Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research. The annual honor recognizes exceptional originality in scientific research, as well as its potential to open new pathways to treatment and cure. The prize is given by the Charles and Margery Barancik SO Foundation, and is administered through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.  

"We're thrilled to present the 2015 Barancik Prize to Drs. Balcer, Calabresi and Frohman," said Dr. Timothy Coetzee, chief advocacy, services and research officer at the National MS Society. "This team has used innovative research on the eye to open up a window to brain health and damage, making it possible to apply widely available tools to track clinical care and clinical trial outcomes in people with MS, while offering novel insights into pathology of the disease."

Using OCT, researchers can see signs of progressive MS that do not show up on a patient’s MRI. They can also observe the effects of new medications, seeing evidence for instance that a therapy has a protective effect, or is actually repairing damage to the nervous system. “Could that be a way that new treatments come about and are tested in a non-invasive way?” Dr. Balcer asked, speculating on the future of the techniques they have developed. 

After a promising start at the three institutions where the collaborators are based, their line of inquiry has now been expanded to 35 centers across the country. The group’s fully open collaboration, in which they share all their data, protocols, and funding, and all papers are written by the group, has created one of the most robust MS databases in the history of the illness, as well as a legacy of highly committed trainees. Most importantly, their approach has sped up progress in the fight against MS. 

"Receiving the Barancik Prize is a great day for team science," said Dr.  Balcer, “and it means even more in that it recognizes the group for a collaboration we all love, because each of us are inspired by our patients."

You can learn more about Balcer's work on the NYU website here.