Maryam Faiz

Maryam Faiz, assistant professor, Division of Anatomy, University of Toronto.

Maryam Faiz, assistant professor in the Division of Anatomy at the University of Toronto (U of T), is part of a Medicine by Design team that is focused on reprogramming brain cells as a treatment strategy for stroke and neurodegenerative diseases including multiple sclerosis (MS).

Over the month of May, Faiz appeared in news segments to inform the public about this exciting work, which is currently being tested in animal models.

Faiz spoke about the team’s research, which uses a gene therapy to convert cells that may be damaging in a certain disease. For example, astrocytes are a type of brain cell that can take on different roles in health and disease. In the case of MS, they can become damaging and attack other brain cells, causing a worsening of disease.

The main cell type lost in MS are oligodendrocytes. These cells keep the nerves functioning well by producing myelin, a coating for the nerves that helps transmit brain signals quickly and properly. Loss of oligodendrocytes and damaged myelin therefore result in the debilitating MS symptoms such as mobility, speech or cognitive issues.

But, Faiz says, if these astrocytes can be converted to needed oligodendrocytes it could be a highly customizable therapeutic that treats not only disease symptoms, but the underlying cellular basis for the disease.

“There’s still more science to be done, [but] the hope is that eventually, it could turn into a cure — at least slow down the progression of MS without using daily drugs,” Faiz said in an interview with CityNews.

Faiz appeared on the following outlets this May:

Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world. There have been MS medications that can help slow disease progression on the market for 30 years, but no cure is available.

Medicine by Design’s neural reprogramming team also includes Cindi Morshead, professor and chair of the Division of Anatomy in the Department of Surgery at U of T, Isabelle Aubert and Carol Schuurmans, senior scientists at Sunnybrook Research Institute, and Melanie Woodin, a professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology, U of T.