At the forefront of MS research

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

You can hear the energy in V. Wee Yong’s voice as he speaks about his life and career, conveying a true sense of purpose and dedication to advancing science and improving human disease outcomes.

As a researcher at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, Yong, PhD, has dedicated his career to innovating at the intersection of neuroscience and immunology. And he channels this expertise of the brain and immune system to better understanding multiple sclerosis (MS), brain tumours and spinal cord injury.

In recognition of his significant contributions to MS research, Yong is the 2017 recipient of the J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine presented by Robarts Research Institute. He is coming to Western University to present his work on November 15, as part of the Taylor Symposium.

“From a professional point of view, I am tremendously honoured,” he said. “I look at the list of previous winners, some of whom are Nobel laureates, and to be put in a category with people at the very top of their field is quite humbling and a great honour.”

“From a personal point of view, it is quite amazing to be able to enjoy the work I do, and to be rewarded for it. I feel extremely blessed,” he added.

Yong has made significant discoveries and introduced approaches to alleviate the pathology of MS and to enhance its repair processes. Recently, Yong and his collaborators demonstrated that a common acne medication called minocycline delays the onset of MS for patients in the early stages of the disease. The results of a Phase III clinical trial proving its efficacy were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2017.

Yong and his colleagues are also looking at two other generic medications through clinical trials in MS – hydroxychloroquine, used to prevent malaria infections, and domperidone, commonly used to treat gastrointestinal symptoms caused by other drugs. These clinical trials are the result of earlier research that Yong and his laboratory team conducted that identified the immune modulating or regenerative aspects of the generic medications.

The advantage of using generic medications is their relatively low cost in comparison with current drug therapies available to MS patients, as well as the ability to use them in combination to influence pathology and regeneration.

“Treating MS with one medication is not enough,” said Yong. “These are affordable medications, and we are hoping to continue to move the frontiers of treatment.”

Yong and his team have also increased their efforts in the area of regeneration, and are trying to harness the benefits of inflammation for regenerative processes.

“If you think about a cut to the skin, it heals because of a directed immune response,” he explained. “We’re trying to apply that principle to the nervous system. If we can harness the potential benefits of inflammation without running into the detrimental aspects, we might be in a better position to facilitate recovery.”

With the potential to benefit patient outcomes, this is a path of inquiry the accomplished researcher says he will continue exploring for the remainder of his career.

While pursuing several areas of scientific discovery, one constant in Yong’s career has been the necessity of collaboration. “One cannot stress enough the value and power of multidisciplinary research,” he said. “My research showcases the need to interact across the disciplines in order to translate findings to the clinic.”

Yong also considers mentorship and training an essential part of his work and duties as a researcher. “The work I’ve done throughout my career has been possible because of the excellent trainees I’ve had the good fortune to work with,” he said.

And in addition to the many researchers, clinicians and trainees he works with, Yong credits the MS Society of Canada for being a strong advocate for MS research – something that has helped his success in the lab. “The MS Society should be applauded for all the support given to the scientific community, as well as to my own program,” he said.

Through the Society, Yong has also been able to connect directly with patients, and says they keep him motivated. “As I try to inspire patients and give them hope, they themselves inspire me,” he said. “They face their challenges on a daily basis with a lot of fortitude.”

The Robarts community is looking forward to presenting Dr. Yong with the Prize at the Leaders in Innovation Dinner on November 15. “Dr. Yong is a leader in MS research both nationally and internationally, and plays a key leadership role in the MS community in Canada,” said Marlys Koschinsky, PhD, Scientific and Executive Director at Robarts. “We look forward to welcoming Dr. Yong to London.”

During his visit, Yong will also spend the day at Robarts and take part in the Taylor Symposium. The event is open to members of the community and includes a special panel discussion moderated by André Picard, health columnist with The Globe and Mail. Visit www.robarts.ca/symposium for more information and to register online.