Sumaira Foundation Awards Five $25K Grants to Advance Research

Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD avatar

by Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD |

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The Sumaira Foundation (TSF) has awarded five $25,000 grants to projects seeking to advance research into preventing, treating, and potentially curing neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD).

This year’s awards — four SPARK grants and one Unicorn grant — will help researchers initiate projects focused on: biomarkers that predict cognitive impairment, the disease’s impact on employment status, and retinal blood vessels, among others.

“Congratulations to our 5 recipients who each received $25,000 to initiate their research projects!” the foundation stated on its website.

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NMOSD is a progressive autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks cells of the central nervous system, leading to damage in the spinal cord and the optic nerve — the nerve that sends and receives signals from the eye.

The Sumaira Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds for NMOSD and the related disorder myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein antibody-associated disease (MOGAD).

Both NMOSD and MOGAD are characterized by brain inflammation and damage to the optic nerves. However, emerging research indicates the two conditions are distinct.

The foundation also creates support communities for patients and caregivers, and funds research focusing on these inflammatory, neurodegenerative diseases.

One way the TSF supports research is through its SPARK and Unicorn grants. The SPARK grants fund up to four U.S.-based projects each year to help advance novel NMOSD research by investigators with demonstrated expertise in the field.

The Unicorn grants — created in honor of Joannie Rios, a girl from New York who had NMOSD and died at age 6 — are dedicated to support up to two research projects focused on pediatric NMOSD. Eligible investigators must also be affiliated with an academic institution in the U.S. and demonstrate their leadership in the field of NMOSD.

This year, the only Unicorn grant was awarded to Nusrat Ahsan, MD, at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, who plans to determine if NMOSD, MOGAD, or the related disorder acute disseminated encephalomyelitis are associated with specific human leukocyte antigen (HLA) proteins.

HLA make up an important part of the immune system by helping the immune system distinguish invading microbes from the body’s own cells. However, variants of certain HLA proteins are known to associated with the development of autoimmune diseases or with worse outcomes in people with such conditions. Ahsan is interested in finding HLA proteins associated with disease relapse.

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Among the SPARK grants, one will support the work of May Han, MD, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford Medicine in California. Han aims to unravel the molecular and immune determinants of cognitive impairment in NMOSD patients, and whether inducing immune system stability can reverse cognitive impairment in those patients.

Farrah Mateen, MD, PhD, a neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, will use her SPARK funds to determine how NMOSD affects employment, job loss, and work hours across multiple countries.

Another of this year’s SPARK awardees, Jamie McDonald, MD, a neuroimmunology fellow at Stanford Medicine, wants to create a large database with longitudinal demographic and clinical data from MOGAD patients, as well as a biorepository with biological samples collected from those patients over time.

Her goal is to determine if the presence and levels of MOG antibodies — the autoantibodies that cause MOGAD — can predict disease severity and relapses, and whether MOG antibodies are associated with specific immune profiles that can inform tailored treatment strategies.

Finally, Elias Sotirchos, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, will focus his research on the network of blood vessels found on the retina, the region in the back of the eye that senses light and sends information to the brain.

He plans to determine if those networks are different in people with NMOSD, MOGAD, and multiple sclerosis, compared with controls, in the eyes of patients with an history of optic neuritis and those without such history. Sotirchos also seeks to find features in these networks that are associated with visual function in patients.