Oct. 3, 2014

Vaniers: Khalil Rawji explores new ways to repair nerve damage

First-hand encounter with an MS patient inspired PhD student to pursue new therapies
Vanier scholar Khalil Rawji is researching compounds which could be used to repair nerve damage in patients with MS.

Khalil Rawji is researching compounds which could be used to repair nerve damage in patients with MS

Finding out someone he knew had been diagnosed with a life-altering illness inspired Khalil Rawji to look for new ways to repair nerve damage, potentially helping people facing everything from strokes to spinal cord injuries.

“It was very difficult,” says the PhD student at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, remembering when he’d first learned of the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). “It was a real first glance into seeing the immense struggles that patients go through every day.”

As one of 11 students at the university who were recently honoured with Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, Rawji will be given $150,000 over three years toward his education and research. His lab has screened 1,040 compounds, of which he is currently testing one in mice to see if repair can be promoted after nerve damage. Most were already approved for other uses in humans, potentially speeding up their implementation for MS and other conditions with this type of damage, he says.

MS affects the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Most patients have the relapsing-remitting form of the illness, which involves unpredictable attacks followed by periods of partial or full recovery.

“One might experience blindness in one eye, with some degree of recovery over time,” says Rawji. “Another time, one might experience loss of balance and have difficulty walking, followed by some recovery. The symptoms are very diverse.”

While scientists have developed many ways to help MS patients, the gradual accumulation of nerve damage is thought to lead to the secondary progressive stage of the illness, says Rawji. “Once patients reach this form of MS, the therapies are largely ineffective,” he says.

Scientists have traditionally suspected MS is partly due to the immune system attacking nerve cells in the brain, but Rawji is taking a different approach. By studying aging mice, he is instead focusing on how the ability to repair nerve damage is diminished as the body gets older, which may play a role in the secondary progressive stage of the disease. If he can find a drug to speed up repair, it could potentially have applications beyond MS – everything from paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Khalil is an outstanding PhD trainee who has been making important discoveries that impact the regeneration of the nervous system following injury,” says his supervisor, Voon Wee Yong of the university’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute and the departments of Oncology and Clinical Neurosciences.

Rawji’s path to the Vanier scholarship was partially eased when he received an Achievers in Medical Science (AIMS) Recruitment Award. Valued at $25,000, it is open to students entering a PhD program at the Cumming School of Medicine who also apply for external awards from provincial and/or national funding agencies. Besides Rawji, fellow Vanier scholar and PhD student Kristen Barton of the university’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health also received an AIMS Award.