Creating New Possibilities for People Living with Multiple Sclerosis

Jay Avasarala, MD, PhD, remembers the moment when he started thinking differently about multiple sclerosis – the devastating, chronic neuroimmunologic disorder that attacks the brain and spinal cord.

It happened early during his residency more than two decades ago. He met with a patient whose multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis had left her confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, let alone live a normal life. She was in her early 20s.

“That stuck in my mind about how disabling this disease can be very early in its course,” he says. “It strikes people in the prime of their life, just as they are getting ready to go out into the world. It really knocked me down, because you remember that’s a human being there in front of you who has this terrible disease.”

Years removed from that formative experience, Avasarala says that patient-centric perspective remains the driving force behind his work today. “It’s always about our patients,” he says.

Comprehensive MS care

Avasarala is the director of UK HealthCare’s Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders Program, which opened in 2018 and offers comprehensive MS care for patients in the Bluegrass and beyond. Along with Avasarala, the program includes MS specialist Joshua Chalkley, DO, and a specially trained neuro-ophthalmologist, Padmaja Sudhaka, MD.

Chalkley and Avasarala are Kentucky’s only providers with fellowship training in MS. Sudhaka, meanwhile, focuses on the connection between MS and a patient’s eyes, an area of the body where the disease’s progression can be spotted earliest. Because MS is a such a complex disease, having a team that understands the nuances of diagnosis and treatment is essential, Avasarala says.

“We know this disease is relentless, and we know that if we’re not aggressive in treating it as soon as we can, these patients can end up with life-changing disabilities,” he says. “Our program draws on expertise from our team and from others across UK HealthCare. Together, we’re able to give our patients earlier, faster and better care.”

Expanded arsenal of treatments

When Avasarala first started seeing patients with MS, only two drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat the disease. Today, there are more than 20. Avasarala says that expanded arsenal of treatments has made a tremendous difference in the day-to-day lives of people with the disease. But the search for better, more effective treatments continues, he says, which is why the clinic offers its patients access to the latest clinical trials related to MS care.

“Clinical trials push the boundaries,” he says. “They introduce our patients to tomorrow’s medications that might become the standard of care in a few years.”

Looking toward the future of MS care, Avasarala is exploring how bone marrow transplantation might be harnessed to address MS. Commonly used to treat blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, bone marrow transplants are showing promise in addressing the debilitating symptoms of MS.   

While there is no cure for MS, Avasarala says being diagnosed with the disease today is much different – and crucially, not nearly as devastating – as it was when he started his career. 

“Yes, it can be an overwhelming diagnosis, he says. “But we’re making progress to halt the disease from getting worse. I can tell patients today, ‘Go swimming, go see a movie. Go live your normal life.’ And that gives us all a reason to be optimistic.”