Cohen Veterans Bioscience was originally launched as Orion Bionetworks in July 2012 with a focus on Multiple Sclerosis. Thanks to generous funding from the Steve A. Cohen Foundation, we changed our name in October 2015 to reflect our commitment to studying Veterans Brain Disorders.
The first area of focus for Orion Bionetworks was multiple sclerosis (MS), a devastating and unpredictable collection of brain disorders with no cure.
MS affects over 2.5 million people worldwide
Although it is often thought of as a single disease, MS is actually a diverse group of conditions that affect each person differently. These conditions are unpredictable in many ways:
- Disease course. In some people with MS, symptoms alternately flare up and resolve many times. In others, symptoms and disability get progressively worse. In still others, the course is mixed or changes over time.
- Timing and length of relapse. People with relapsing forms of MS may experience flare-ups – or relapses – very often or only rarely. Relapses may be brief or last a long time.
- Type and severity of symptoms. MS is associated with many symptoms, including fatigue, weakness, blurred vision, loss of balance and incontinence. Some people have many symptoms during flare-ups. Some may have only one. Likewise, some people with MS have very mild symptoms during a flare-up, while others cannot functional normally.
- Onset and progress of disability. Some people with MS can live for many years without permanent or severe loss of abilities. Others become dependent on canes or wheelchairs after only a few years.
- Response to treatment. Although there are now ten medicines for MS, there is no way to predict which one will be most effective – or effective at all – for a person with MS.
The unpredictability of MS makes personalized treatment difficult or impossible, and slows the study of new therapies.
One reason MS is so unpredictable is that we don’t fully understand how genetics, environment and other factors work together to trigger the processes that cause symptoms and disability. These processes are short-term inflammation and long-term damage to the nerves of the brain and spinal cord (neurodegeneration).
Our limited understanding of MS has also led to limited treatment options. Available medicines only affect inflammation. While they can reduce the risk of relapse and slow the pace of disability, they don’t appear to protect or repair damaged nerves.
The good news is that MS is an ideal target for predictive modeling, because many different types of data have been collected to date and are available for computer simulation. A robust simulation of MS will help us answer important questions:
- What genetic or environmental factors predict how the disease will progress?
- How is the disease likely to affect an individual patient?
- How can we help doctors make informed treatment decisions?
- What is unique about patients who do or do not respond to treatment?
- Which targets and pathways are the most promising for providing individualized treatments or cures based on each patient’s biological fingerprint?