Updated: Virtual MS research community emerges

Stakeholders in the development of multiple sclerosis drugs have taken their fight against the neurodegenerative disease online with the launch of a virtual community intended to connect researchers of MS and related disorders. The effort has emerged after earlier crowd-sourcing and open source efforts to discover new treatments.

Multiple sclerosis, which affects 400,000 U.S. patients and 2 million people globally, attacks the central nervous system, destroying the protective sheath around nerve cells. Many drugmakers have poured fortunes into researching MS drugs, but none of them has come up with a cure for the chronic disease. With the new virtual community, called the Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum, backers hope that the collaboration the forum facilitates will shorten the road to treatments that can wipe out the illness.

Several groups are contributing to the new virtual community. The Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis is providing the content for the online forum, and Massachusetts General Hospital's MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease developed and supports the technology platform for the community. The Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics administers the MS gene database, appropriately dubbed MSGene, which scientists at drug companies or elsewhere can access via the forum for researching new treatments or other studies.

Merck KGaA's EMD Serono, a developer and provider of MS drugs, is the founding funder of the new MS community. But the community's organizers stressed that its funders won't impinge on its independence. Presumably, that means that no deep-pocketed donors from biopharma or elsewhere will influence the articles, webinars and databases available on the forum. And researchers will be able to use the community to vet their work and collaborate with other scientists in an unbiased setting.

"Our role is to facilitate a much more agile way of sharing research results," Tim Clark, director of informatics at MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, told FierceBiotech IT. He added that the hope is that researchers use the online member directory and other features of the site to find collaborators to advance their work in multiple sclerosis research.

"Information about new findings and resources, accessible on a single site, will spur innovative ideas and speed progress," Richard Ransohoff, an advisor to the virtual community and director of the Cleveland Clinic's Neuroinflammation Research Center, said in statement. "Knowledge sharing at scientific conferences can now continue online and will engage the broader community, allowing MS researchers to untangle the causes of this often-devastating illness and develop therapeutic compounds and strategies."

Scientists all over the world are embracing online platforms to support their research. For instance, the Open Source Drug Discovery project, a web-supported initiative launched by India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research four years ago, says it has more than 5,700 participants from 130 countries. The group has expanded beyond discovery efforts and put its support behind a new tuberculosis treatment in mid-stage clinical trials.

- here's the release

Updated: This story was updated on 4/18/12 with comments from Tim Clark of Mass General.