“As a scientist, having such a close connection with patients and their stories is highly motivational. It also allows us to think outside the box, and focus our researcher on topics that will really make a difference.” - Dr. Violaine K. Harris, Senior Research Scientist.
Dr. Harris joined the laboratory of the Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center of New York in 2004, where she has been developing cell therapy strategies to promote repair and regeneration in multiple sclerosis. Her work has led to the groundbreaking stem cell clinical trial, the first ever to test bone marrow-derived neural progenitors in patients with MS. Through investigating adult stem cells from bone marrow- a source of cells from the same individual (autologous) - known as mesenchymal stem cell-derived neural progenitors (MSC-NPs), Dr. Harris, and her team have discovered that these cells promote repair in areas of demyelination when injected into mouse models of multiple sclerosis. Through the uniquely close partnership between the researchers, clinicians, and patients, this stem cell therapy was tested in twenty MS patients through an FDA approved Phase I clinical trial. Results from the study were remarkable and unprecedented. Patients with both primary and secondary progressive MS experienced improvement in bladder function, vision, and walking speed with no adverse effects. Dr. Harris and her team are actively investigating the mechanisms by which MSC-NPs promote repair and regeneration in MS. Research is focused on the identification of molecules involved in MSC-NP-mediated repair, which have therapeutic potential in future cell therapy strategies.
As regenerative therapies are developed and tested in clinical trials, there is a need for biomarkers that can measure neural repair and remyelination in MS. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulates around the brain and spinal cord and, thus, is ideally suited to measure neural repair. Dr. Harris’ research team is investigating the CSF of patients treated with stem cells in order to discover novel biomarkers of repair. Her recent research has also identified other CSF biomarkers of disease activity, including Fetuin-A. Fetuin-A was found to not only detect disease activity but was also a biomarker of clinical response to the drug natalizumab. Her current research is focused on understanding the mechanisms of action of Fetuin-A in MS pathogenesis. In a recent review article, Dr. Harris and Dr. Sadiq discuss the benefit of using CSF biomakers as a means to understanding the level of disease activity and treatment response in MS patients. Through her expertise in studying biomarkers, Dr. Harris and her team are revealing a better understanding of disease mechanisms that lead directly to personalized treatments for patients.
Dr. Harris has had a longstanding interest in stem cell biology and in understanding the mechanisms of cell signaling and differentiation. She received her PhD in Pharmacology from Georgetown University, and her BA in Biochemistry/Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Her training also included a postdoctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she studied mechanisms involved in the maintenance of cancer stem cells.