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Taking a shot at netrins

U of M scientists take on multiple sclerosis

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Prof. Jorge Stetefeld and his team at the U of M are searching for a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Prof. Jorge Stetefeld and his team at the U of M are searching for a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. Photo Store

Would that curing MS were as simple as the language Prof. Jorge Stetefeld uses to make the incredibly complex workings of the brain understandable to lay people.

Working in a small lab on the fourth floor of the aged Parker Building on the University of Manitoba campus, Stetefeld and his team of 10 scientists and grad students may just come up with a cure for multiple sclerosis.

"This would be the dream, but we would all be very happy if we could slow it down," said Stetefeld.

Born in the former East Germany, Stetefeld moved to Winnipeg from Switzerland in 2006 to take up a Canada Research Chair, and has a research grant from the MS Society of Canada. The protein crystallographer will discuss his research in a speech Wednesday evening at the Viscount Gort on World MS Day.

'This would be the dream, but we would all be very happy if we could slow it down'

-- Prof. Jorge Stetefeld (below), on finding a cure for MS

"We make structure-based drug design," said Stetefeld, who explained that he grows crystals, a very complicated process.

"We grow crystals of proteins, then expose them to very high-energy X-rays," he said. "We go to the Canadian Light Source, the synshrotron in Saskatoon.

"We have an X-ray source in-house, but in Saskatoon the beam is super-intense."

Making quick sketches he uses for explaining unbelievably complex chemistry to high school students, Stetefeld said his specific research is into netrin proteins, whose job it is to repair damage to the axions which transmit information from the brain to cells throughout the body.

"In some people, the netrins don't work properly," though no one knows why, or how it happens to one person and not to another -- there's nothing obvious, no common link such as smoking.

Cells have two receptors which attract and repel, he said: "These receptors, we know how the netrin talks to them. Because of MS, the netrins make wrong decisions."

There are many scientists taking many different approaches to try to stop, slow down or reverse MS, he said. "You can argue, what is a breakthrough experiment?

"This netrins, we are the only ones.

"We found this as something we could contribute to help. We try to develop a drug.

"In a time frame of five to 10 years, we hope to end up with a drug that could go to field tests with animals," he said.

It's a fallacy to believe only universities such as Harvard could cure MS, Stetefeld declared: "We have extremely smart guys from Winnipeg."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2014 A2

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