During his freshman year of college, Brian Phillips came home one day to find his parents unexpectedly already there. With tears in his eyes, his dad, a former Marine, put his hand on his son’s shoulder and asked him to sit down. “I’ll never forget it,” Phillips said. “I’d never seen my dad cry before.”
The test results were in. At age 19, Brian had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
He had known something wasn’t quite right for a while. Tennis had always come easy to him. But when he challenged a friend to a game, he played so badly that he completely missed many of the shots. Following some tests, including an MRI brain scan, he received the diagnosis.
A multifaceted disease
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic, often disabling disease in which the immune system attacks the myelin, the fatty substance that insulates axon nerve fibers and makes up the brain’s white matter.
The multiple forms of MS present with variable symptoms depending on the individual. These may include impaired motor function, lack of coordination, blindness, neuropathic pain, bladder and bowel issues, extreme fatigue and more.
Further from the equator, disease rates are higher. This suggests a link to a lack of vitamin D, which the skin makes in response to sunlight, but this has yet to be proven as a definitive cause.
In the U.S., over 600,000 people live with the disease — 70% of whom are women. The age at diagnosis ranges from 20 to 60 years old.
After encountering three colleagues and many patients with MS during her medical training, neurologist Anne Cross, MD, made it her life’s work to study and treat patients with the disease. “As a resident, I saw a lot of MS patients. They were predominantly young women my age and there was really nothing we could do for them,” she said.
Expanding the arsenal
With few drugs available, Cross, now director of the John L. Trotter MS Center at Washington University, decided she wanted to help discover treatments through research. Even though she had no research experience, she was accepted into a fellowship working with two highly respected MS researchers at the National Institutes of Health: Dale McFarlin, MD, and Henry McFarland, MD.
“They really took a chance on me. I had not done any research before that. I didn’t even know how to hold a pipette,” said Cross, the Manny and Rosalyn Rosenthal–Dr. John Trotter MS Chair in Neuroimmunology. The work she did there was similar in scope to a PhD program, she added.
Cross completed two more fellowships before being recruited to the School of Medicine with her husband, DeWitte Cross III, MD, a professor of radiology and of neurosurgery. They moved to St. Louis with their young son (now a third-year neurosurgery resident) and daughter.
It was here she met John Trotter, MD, one of the first neuroimmunologists, thanks to his unique training at the time in both neurology and immunology. Trotter, who died unexpectedly in 2001, cared for half the patients with MS in St. Louis at the time of his death.