Dr. Raphael Schneider
Dr. Raphael Schneider leans forward eagerly. Sitting in a small lounge at St. Michael’s Hospital, he is talking about brains – their complexity, their mystery and his fervent desire to uncover the best way to intervene when things go wrong.
“Everybody is fascinated by the brain,” he says. “We need it for everything we do. There are lots of things we understand about it, but there is still quite a lot we don’t.”
Dr. Schneider is particularly keen to find substances in our bodies – known as biomarkers – that will help diagnose and predict how neurological diseases develop and progress, especially multiple sclerosis. These biomarkers are important because they can indicate how aggressive the disease is, allowing doctors to ramp up or dial back medications for more individualized treatment.
But the end game, says Dr. Schneider, is to stop MS in its tracks. He hopes that by pinpointing the biomarkers involved in MS, he can give drug developers a precise target for halting the disease before it causes permanent symptoms.
Dr. Schneider originally planned to bring his biomarker expertise back to his native Germany after he finished a research fellowship in multiple sclerosis at the University of Montreal. But he now believes that there is no place like St. Michael’s Hospital to do his research.
“I just wanted the opportunity to work with the group at BARLO,” he says. “We have common interests and complementary skills - a great recipe for a strong research group. It keeps me really enthusiastic.”
One of the more promising biomarkers Dr. Schneider is investigating is called microRNA. It is a small molecule that regulates gene expression. That means it can increase or decrease the production of specific gene products, such as proteins. This is important because proteins carry out all sorts of important tasks in our cells.
White blood cells, for example, secrete various proteins. Some of these – if produced in high enough quantities – can damage neurons, or their protective coating, contributing to MS and its progression.
Dr. Schneider wants to know which microRNAs (there are thousands in our bodies) are responsible for regulating a gene’s ability to produce these potentially damaging proteins. It’s vital information for researchers who then develop drugs that put a stop to the process.
“We have some good MS treatments. Some are quite powerful,” says Dr. Schneider. “But we haven’t yet found the right medication for everyone. This is where I think I can make a solid contribution.”