Published July 29, 2022
To his colleagues in neurology in the 1980s and ‘90s, the late Lawrence Jacobs was a brilliant and visionary biomedical researcher whose research changed forever how multiple sclerosis was treated around the world.
To his patients in Western New York, he was simply “Dr. Larry,” beloved for the warm personal rapport he developed with those he cared for.
Last month, officials of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), three generations of the Jacobs family, former patients, fellow researchers and friends gathered for an early morning tribute on the fifth floor of UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center.
The purpose of the gathering was to pay homage to the man they knew as Dr. Larry and to recognize how his work decades ago laid the foundation for “Pathways to Cures” of the NMSS, the society’s 2022 roadmap for new MS treatments and cures published recently in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal.
NMSS officials Cyndi Zagieboylo, CEO, and Tim Coetzee, chief advocacy and science officer, were present to honor Jacobs’ “transformational contribution to the development of treatments for multiple sclerosis.” At the event, they presented a plaque honoring him to his wife of 36 years, Pamela R. Jacobs. It will be displayed in the UBMD Neurology offices in the Conventus building downtown.
Stephanie Kunes, president of the NMSS Upstate/WNY chapter, and Meredith Sheehan, programs and services coordinator, also were present.
The theme of the event was clear: that the incredible promise of new MS treatments that is becoming evident now all began with Jacobs.
“It’s because of Dr. Larry that we are at this place, that we can talk about pathways to MS cures and what that roadmap looks like,” Zagieboylo said.
Coetzee explained that it all began with Jacobs’ research, which as early as 1981 was showing that early treatment of multiple sclerosis with interferon beta-1a significantly reduced the rate of progression and impact of the disease. Like many northern cities around the world, Buffalo has a higher incidence of MS than more southern locations.
The key principle, which Jacobs’ research demonstrated, he said, was that starting treatment early could change the trajectory of MS. He described the multiple ways that the NMSS Pathways to Cures project is continuing to work to “stop MS in its tracks” through early detection of biomarkers, personalized medication strategies and by addressing the social determinants of health. At the same time, he said, the organization is focused on restoring function that is lost due to MS and ultimately ending MS forever by reducing risk factors.
Jacobs was chair of the Department of Neurology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences from 2000 to 2001, and director of the Jacobs Neurological Institute and the William C. Baird MS Research Center at Buffalo General Medical Center. He held the Irvin and Rosemary Smith Chair in Neurology in the Jacobs School, which was established in 1998 with a $1.5 million endowment from Biogen, manufacturer of Avonex, the drug that resulted from Jacobs' groundbreaking research that changed the trajectory of MS forever.
He funded his initial work privately, eventually attracting multimillion-dollar grants from the National Institutes for Health. His work leading the Controlled High-Risk Subjects Avonex Multiple Sclerosis Prevention Study (CHAMPS) was published as the lead article in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2000. This work showed that interferon prevented the conversion to clinically definite MS. Later, the Harvard Health Letter named this article among the top 10 most important medical advances of the year.
That paper concluded: “The weight of current knowledge suggests that preventing or delaying a second attack of multiple sclerosis and reducing the progression of central nervous system demyelination as demonstrated on MRI scans of the brain will have long-term clinical benefits.”
Those present at last month’s tribute noted that, more than 20 years later, that statement continues to resonate, especially in light of the research and clinical care that is being provided by UB neurologists who treat patients in UB’s Jacobs MS Center for Treatment and Research at Conventus. The UB center has been designated a National MS Society Center for Comprehensive MS Care.
The achievements of UB neurologists were celebrated in a talk by Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Neurology and director of the Jacobs MS Center for Treatment and Research. She is also a researcher with UB’s Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center (BNAC), which she noted, was started by Jacobs “with just two computers and a research assistant.”
The center that began with such modest beginnings is now an international, academic neuroimaging laboratory under the directorship of Robert Zivadinov, and has contributed more than 20 years of groundbreaking neuroimaging research; it has been involved in more than 80 clinical trials in MS, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.
Weinstock-Guttman talked about her research on MS patients as they age, which led to a discovery that has changed the assumption that medications provide no benefit to the aging patient. In fact, her research has shown that older MS patients who discontinue their medications experience a worsening of their disease.
She also talked about her research into how MS results in patients’ declining conscientiousness, described as a tendency toward deliberation, achievement and order, and her work with Ralph Benedict, neuropsychologist in the Department of Neurology, on an “app’” that could help patients curb that decline.
Addressing the lack of underrepresented patients in MS clinical trials, Penny L. Pennington, director of program management for the Jacobs MS Center for Treatment and Research, discussed UB’s “MS Health Equity” program. Designed to raise awareness of health disparities among MS patients and to collaborate on developing solutions with three urban health centers that care for underserved minority and refugee patients in Buffalo, the program is working closely with the Community Health Center of Buffalo, Jericho Road Community Health Center, and Urban Family Health.
“Particularly in these times, it’s important for our community to know that we are working hard to overcome barriers to timely access to the best therapies and increase inclusion of minorities in clinical trials so that the results reflect the broader population of patients who will use these therapies,” Pennington said.
Alison Brashear, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, was unable to join the event in person because of travel difficulties, but noted that as a neurologist, she is pleased with the rich history of innovation in neurological disease at UB.
“Dr. Lawrence Jacobs left such a legacy of creativity that lives on today in the researchers, providers and caregivers who provide our patients with the newest therapies, and every day work to push the envelope on understanding and treating disabling neurologic diseases, like MS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.
Rep. Chris Jacobs, Jacobs’ son, joined the event by Zoom from his office in Washington, D.C. “One of the wonderful things about the Biogen story is that it’s a Buffalo story,” he said. He explained that his father’s initial research with interferon wasn’t at first accepted by the larger research funders, so he turned to the Baird Foundation, which awarded him a substantial grant. “It was by the generosity of that foundation that he was able to do his critical research,” Chris Jacobs said.
He said the close connection that his father had with his brother, Jeremy M. Jacobs, chairman of Delaware North and chair of the UB Council, was also a key factor in what Lawrence Jacobs had been able to achieve, noting that Jeremy acted as a sounding board for his brother as he maneuvered through his many challenges.
“He probably would not have achieved what he did without the love and support of his brother, Jerry,” Chris Jacobs said, adding that discussions of an MS cure are rooted in his father’s research. “It is because of the work of everyone in this room that we are going to get there.”
The event was moderated by Pennington and Gil Wolfe, SUNY Distinguished Professor, chair of the Department of Neurology and president of UBMD Neurology.