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Spring 1999

Young Guns
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Rhonda Voskuhl
Associate Professor of Neurology
School of Medicine

Rhonda Voskuhl credits her skyrocketing ascent to the head of those searching for a successful cure to multiple sclerosis to a mixture of luck, timing, mentors and colleagues. But those at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society chalk it up to something else: Voskuhl's brilliant creativity.

Patricia O'Looney, director of biomedical research programs for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, says the 38-year-old Oklahoma native combines a "wonderful knowledge of neurology and immunology" with a researcher's sense of innovation and a clinician's enthusiasm and compassion.

That innovation led to the MS Society's most prestigious award in 1997, the Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholarship, given to the most promising young scientist in the field as a result of her research into gender-based differences in autoimmune diseases.

The significance of gender differences in diseases such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, which affect women three times more frequently than men and often improve during late pregnancy, was long-known but mostly overlooked. Voskuhl, a graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and former senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, suspected that the sex and pregnancy clues "must be a hint into how these diseases work."

She zeroed in on two hormones produced in abundance during late pregnancy, progesterone and estriol. Mice developed as models for human autoimmune conditions were exposed to the hormones at blood levels close to what would be circulating during the third trimester.

"Progesterone didn't do much," she reports. "But there was a huge disease amelioration when we gave them estriol."

The hormone seems to rein in peripheral blood cells that produce inflammatory reactions. So convincing were her results that the Food and Drug Administration gave her a green light for a six-month pilot study of estriol in women with MS.

As usual, Voskuhl downplays her achievement: "We got there earlier than the others did," she notes. "I was fortunate."

-- B.B.

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