11 June 2012. Alzforum welcomes a new member to the fold. The Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum (MSDF) provides, for free, a wealth of information for researchers studying multiple sclerosis (MS) and related disorders. Like Alzforum and similar forums for schizophrenia, pain, Parkinson's disease, and autism, MSDF combines news on the latest scientific findings with a variety of professional and research resources, including lists of upcoming meetings, jobs and funding opportunities, and databases for genes and for drugs in the pipeline. The site strives to fertilize cross-disciplinary research and speed the field toward much better treatments. Launched 17 April 2012, MSDF started off with articles and blogs reporting on recent meetings, current patient monitoring techniques, and predictions for treatment side effects. Over the long haul, the site will attempt to unify the field in addressing such questions as, What causes MS? What triggers relapses? What are paths toward better drugs?
"There are people from a wide range of disciplines working on MS, and they don't necessarily talk to each other, go to the same meetings, or even read the same journals, yet they would benefit from finding out about one another's work," said Evelyn Strauss, executive editor of the site. "Like Alzforum, we hope that we can be a platform for online discussions, airing controversies, and basically providing a one-stop shop for MS researchers."
MSDF falls under the umbrella of the Accelerated Cure Project (ACP) for Multiple Sclerosis, a national nonprofit organization based in Waltham, Massachusetts, whose stated goal is to speed the field toward a cure. Its flagship project has been an MS tissue repository open to all researchers studying the disease. ACP's vice president of scientific operations, Hollie Schmidt, oversees content on MSDF, which has an independent scientific advisory board. MSDF partners are the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND), which developed and supports the site's Web platform, and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, which is responsible for maintaining the MSGene database.
EMD Serono, a U.S.-based biopharmaceutical company and a subsidiary of Merck, provided a one-time $1.5 million grant to the Massachusetts General Hospital to develop and launch the site. EMD Serono does not influence editorial or day-to-day operations, according to Strauss. The company sells the MS drug Rebif. It is testing another MS treatment, the S1P receptor agonist ONO-4641, in Phase 2, and several MS-related compounds in Phase 1.
Like other forums, MSDF will report the latest news, highlight recent papers, and host discussions and Webinars on hot topics in MS. MSDF hosts a drug pipeline database that is searchable by parameters such as a drug's clinical standing or side effects. Researchers can peruse tissue bank repositories around the world to locate samples of blood, sera, cerebral spinal fluid, or postmortem brain samples of people affected by MS and other neurodegenerative disorders. An animal model section will include tips and caveats on working with certain animal models. "Another way to speed the field toward a cure is to save researchers time by consolidating information," said Strauss.
The site launched with news synthesis articles, which are a cross between feature and review articles. This type of article aims to bridge disciplines, taking a newbie from the basics to the very latest knowledge. News syntheses first go into the depth and breadth of background to orient unfamiliar readers to the topic, then layer on new findings and expert opinions. These, and some other news pieces, end with "key open questions" that capture current thinking on possibilities for further investigation. As the site grows, coverage will extend to lesser known diseases, such as neuromyelitis optica, transverse myelitis, and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis—all demyelinating disorders that attack the central nervous system.
Over time, writers and editors will identify topic areas where MSDF can make a difference, said Strauss. They will also need to secure financial resources to make the site thrive. But the immediate task ahead is to build a community of scientists who visit regularly. "We can make the best site in world, but its success depends on researchers using it," said Strauss. As on Alzforum, readers’ active participation—by voicing thoughtful opinions in online discussions and commenting on MSDF articles—will enrich the site, and readers’ ideas will help mature MSDF into a truly interactive resource.
"One major need in MS is integration among fields—there's very little cross-fertilization," said Patrizia Casaccia, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. "This could be a great way to integrate the literature from the fields of immunology, neurology, and neurobiology in a fashion that is acceptable to all worlds." How about redundancy with other websites that also report MS news? Strauss considers MSDF unique: "I don't think other sites do the kind of researcher-directed reporting that we do.”
"As long as the site acquires the needed level of recognition in the field, it will become a tool that everyone uses," Casaccia said.—Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib.