Kenneth P. Johnson, M.D., Professor and Chairman of Neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Director of the Maryland Center for MS, has been awarded the prestigious John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research.
The international award, which is given jointly by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the American Academy of Neurology, recognizes Dr. Johnson for 30 years of leadership in Multiple Sclerosis research that led to the development of the first drugs to slow the progression of the disease.
Dr. Johnson received the award on May 2nd at the national meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in San Diego. He was selected for his international leadership in designing and testing new treatments for MS, and for his pioneering laboratory work to identify an infectious trigger of the disease. He was also cited for his focus on professional education in MS and his dedication to improving the quality of life of people living with MS with aggressive symptom management and rehabilitation.
"I am very honored to receive this award," said Dr. Johnson. "It highlights the progress we have made in developing the first effective therapies to change the course of MS. However, we still have a lot more work ahead of us in order to conquer this disease."
When he received the award, Dr. Johnson pointed out that important milestones could not have been achieved without the participation of people with MS in clinical trials. "Perhaps those who have contributed the most are the several thousand MS patients who have taken part in research over the past two decades," Dr. Johnson said.
Dr. Johnson's work on MS began in the 1970's when he and some colleagues decided to test the theory that human interferons, used to fight viruses, may be therapeutic against MS. The first drug they tested, alpha interferon, did not show any benefit. The second one, gamma interferon, instead turned out to be a potent stimulator of new disease activity. But that work provided important clues about the role of immune activity in causing MS attacks, and it gave the researchers insight on new directions to pursue to inhibit the disease.
Next, Dr. Johnson and his colleagues began to study beta interferon, a drug that was later proven effective in preventing MS attacks and reducing damage to the brain. Dr. Johnson was a key investigator in the early-phase studies and later in the pivotal clinical trial that led to FDA approval of Betaseron in 1993. It was the first drug ever approved specifically to treat MS by changing the natural course of the disease.
Dr. Johnson also led research on a compound called Copolymer 1. He developed the protocol and recruited 11 medical centers to participate in a pivotal phase III trial.
In 1996, the FDA approved the Copolymer 1 drug, which was re-named glatiramer acetate, and it became commercially available under the name Copaxone. Today, about 70,000 people with MS take one of the three available drugs-Betaseron, Avonex, or Copaxone- in order to slow the progression of their disease.
Dr. Johnson was born in Jamestown, New York. He received his Bachelor's Degree from Upsala College in New Jersey in 1955, and his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1959. After completing his residency in medicine and neurology at Buffalo General Hospital in 1961, Dr. Johnson continued his training at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.
In 1974 he went to the University of California in San Francisco, where he became a Professor of Neurology. In 1981, he accepted his current position at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He has authored over 200 publications, primarily focused on MS, and has served as a member of the National MS Society's Medical Advisory Board and its Research Programs Advisory Committee.
Under his leadership, the Maryland Center for MS at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore continues to look for new and improved therapies for MS, a disease that affects more than 300,000 people in the U.S. MS occurs when the immune system attacks the nervous system and destroys myelin, the protective covering of the nerves. The majority of MS patients-70 percent-are women. It is the most common disabling disease of young adults age 15-45.
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