Newswise — Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl, who directs UCLA’s multiple sclerosis program and holds the Jack H. Skirball Chair for Multiple Sclerosis Research, has been selected as the recipient of the Berlin Institute of Health’s Excellence Award for Sex and Gender Aspects in Health Research.

The award, which aims to bring visibility to sex and gender issues in translational research, is co-sponsored by the Berlin Institute of Health, a biomedical research institution emphasizing translational research and precision medicine.

The award, which comes with 10,000 Euros in funding, recognizes research excellence among internationally renowned scientists working in the field of basic and/or clinical biomedical research with a focus on sex and gender. As winner of the excellence award, Voskuhl is also nominated by the BIH for the Einstein Visiting Fellowship. Through these mechanisms, the institute seeks to establish networking and joint projects between recipients and researchers in Berlin.

“Gender differences are hugely important research factors in personalized medicine. With this award, we want to draw attention to this fact and encourage gender aspects to become more firmly anchored in research,” said Martin Lohse, a member of the institute’s executive board.

Voskuhl, a neurologist, has pioneered research in sex differences in multiple sclerosis. MS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that causes physical weakness and cognitive difficulty, among other symptoms. In MS, the differences between men and women are pronounced. Women develop the disease three to four times as often as men do, but men typically develop permanent disabilities more quickly.

Women with multiple sclerosis have long reported that they feel better and have fewer relapses during pregnancy. Voskuhl’s team at UCLA has shown that this is due at least in part to estriol, an estrogen produced by the fetus and placenta in pregnancy.

Voskuhl’s team at UCLA initially showed a reduction in MS brain lesions with estriol treatment. Next, a UCLA-led, multicenter, placebo-controlled trial showed a reduction in relapses, which was independently validated in September of 2017 through third-party analyses by QuintilesIMS, a global clinical research organization. This paved the way for a Phase 3 clinical trial.

Most recently, in early December 2017, Voskuhl and the UCLA statistical group received a planning grant to design a definitive, global Phase 3 trial of estriol treatment for MS. In parallel, UCLA is close to completing enrollment for another multicenter, placebo-controlled trial that tests whether estriol treatment can cause cognitive improvement in MS patients. 

This translational work on sex hormones in MS will be extended through collaboration with the Berlin Institute of Health. Voskuhl will lead a team of neurology and neuroimaging experts who have collected clinical and MRI data from MS patients for over a decade.

“I am very honored to receive this award which encompassed not only MS but all diseases. I am very excited to work with the BIH neuroscience team to determine if female and male MS patients differ in the rate of progression of each disability and to identify disability specific biomarkers that can predict decline.”

The award extends Voskuhl’s ongoing work at UCLA -- currently funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Tom Sherak MS Hope Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health -- which uses gene expression in the brain to discover neuroprotective treatments tailored to each disability and to each sex.