Dr. Mauricio Farez, a neurology resident from Argentina, was awarded one of MSIF’s Du Pré Grants in 2014. Du Pré Grants enable young MS researchers from emerging countries to make short visits to established MS research centres, either to learn from each other or to carry out joint research projects.
Mauricio travelled to Harvard Medical School to work with Dr. Francisco Quintana to study the role of melatonin in MS.
How did you get involved with MS research?
As a child, I was always intrigued about the brain and how it works. After my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I decided I wanted to be a neurologist and contribute towards the treatment of neurological illnesses.
During medical school however, I fell in love with immunology and I couldn’t decide which one to focus on. Later on, while I was a teaching assistant on the immunology course, I started learning about multiple sclerosis and the immune response in the brain. That’s when I decided I wanted to get into research and contribute to fight this disease in particular.
Why did you decide to focus your study on melatonin?
I was intrigued by the initial observation we made that MS relapses have a clear seasonal occurrence with less relapses during fall and winter.
What were the key findings from your study?
We found that melatonin levels (a hormone released by the pineal gland in the absence of light) have an inverse correlation with MS relapses (higher levels of melatonin correspond to lower number of relapses). Melatonin is involved in controlling the balance between different sets of immune cells, so altering the levels of melatonin in the body could prevent the occurrence of relapses.
How will your research make a difference for people with MS?
Melatonin and drugs targeting its pathways could be a future alternative in MS treatment. However, until a proper clinical trial is conducted, melatonin should not be used as an MS therapy. I would like to emphasise this, because melatonin is a complex hormone which acts in almost every cell. We do not know yet the dosage and administration form needed to obtain similar effects to the one observed in our studies.
What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Our data definitively show that clinical trials are needed to evaluate melatonin or related drugs in MS – we are working towards this. We are also trying to understand the relationship between melatonin and vitamin D levels (another seasonal factor associated with MS).
What impact has the MSIF award had on your career?
The MSIF award has had a massive impact on my career. I was able to travel back to my old lab and finish my research project that otherwise I’m unsure I would have been able to finish, and publish our findings. But that’s not the only great thing about the award, I’m proud and honoured to be part of the MSIF alumni. Being able to attend MSIF meetings and interact with other fellows and alumni is a significant experience.
What would you say to someone who is considering applying for an MSIF grant?
Do it! To experience science and work in different settings outside our own countries is a great way to learn techniques, work-ethics and other knowledge that I have no doubt will be very useful for the rest of your career. The benefits of spending a few months or years working abroad will have a lifelong impact on your career.
What’s next for you in your career?
I have just finished my residency and I have a position as a Research Associate in Buenos Aires, where I’m starting my own lab focused on research on environmental factors in MS.