Steven Kerfoot, PhD - A new way of looking at Multiple Sclerosis

Hard work, coincidence and a little bit of luck. That combination is what brought Steven Kerfoot, PhD, back to Canada to lead a lab team studying immune response in Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Kerfoot, a new faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, had actually left the field of MS research completely when serendipity hit.

Kerfoot had completed his PhD at the University of Calgary and went to Yale University to complete a post-doctoral position looking at basic B cell biology research. B cells are best known as the cells that make antibodies, but scientists have learned that they also have other important rolls in directing and controlling immune responses.

“It was while I was at Yale that scientists realized that B cells were actually important in MS,” said Kerfoot. “It was putting those two things together that brought me to where I am today.”

Kerfoot said for the past two decades, scientists have almost exclusively looked at the T cell immune response and largely ignored the role of B cells in the initiation and progression of the disease. Researchers now know that B cells are extraordinarily important, and this new way of looking at the disease has spurred a lot of activity in this area in recent years.

Kerfoot’s lab is looking specifically at the role that B cells play in initiating and maintaining the chronic immune response that is responsible for the damage to the central nervous system seen in MS. In order to push forward with these studies their initial task was creating a new model of the disease that would better incorporate the B cell response and better replicate the human disease.

“We think that the model we’ve come up with is much more complex and appropriate for trying to understand how the immune system drives an inflammatory response in the central nervous system,” he said. “This now becomes a platform for everything else that we’re doing.”

The new model is already providing clues about how the B cells accumulate in the central nervous system. Kerfoot’s lab has shown that clusters of B cells formed in the meninges of the spinal cords of his new mouse model. These clusters are reminiscent of the clusters that form in human MS patients.

“The real mystery is what these clusters are doing there,” Kerfoot said. “We can now use these models to help answer that question.”

Their work was recently published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology, and Kerfoot said it is exciting to feel like they are starting to make progress toward understanding the intricacies of this complex disease.