We sat down with the new director of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and neuro-immunology program, Dr. Jaime Imitola, a clinician scientist recruited from Ohio State. He has a grand vision for developing UConn Health’s currently offered MS services into a comprehensive center. He also has a research laboratory studying stem cells in MS.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am clinician scientist responsible for the MS program, which entails not only the clinical aspect, but also the research – especially the translational perspective of the research here at UConn Health. I am a board-certified neurologist. I conduct research in stem cells, which I’ve been doing for more than 15 years. I am happy to be at UConn Health to foster opportunities and collaborate with other scientists who are studying the neurobiology of multiple sclerosis.
What was your previous position?
I was the director of the progressive MS program at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I was there for six years. I was in charge of helping with the organization and care of patients and also did research in molecular biology and genetics of progression in MS – focusing on repair and using stem cells as a tool.
How did you decide to make health care your career?
Initially, before I decided to do medicine, I wasn’t really interested in health care. I was interested in science. I was pretty curious about things. My dad was a lawyer, and he had a bunch of books around, and I picked up a book about forensic medicine. I read it in three days. It was a little book – and I said, “This was easy; I can do that.” I found it to be fascinating. As a lawyer, my dad had a lot of books on law and history. He was very supportive of whatever I wanted to do in life. That was one reason – and then the scientific curiosity and biology. That changes when you go into medicine – when you start interacting with patients and see how they suffer, that changes a great deal. But, the desire to be a be a physician scientist materialized when I was in the middle of medical training. I saw patients with MS, but we didn’t have any kind of therapy available for them. At that time, we didn’t understand what was happening to the patient. So I said to myself, “You need to do both things. You need to find out what’s going on with the patients and also help them.” And, that was the initiation of my interest. At that point, I decided to apply to many places to get the experience, scientific and medical training, and that’s how I ended up where I am.
How did you decide to make MS your focus?
When I was in medical school, I saw my first MS patient. At that time, we had limited medications for her. I was interested in following her case, even though we didn’t have good therapy. Then I found out that she passed, and I was really impacted by that and challenged to learn more. I wanted to find out how many MS patients were in the hospital to provide some perspective about their care, and that was my first paper. That paper led to opportunities to pursue clinical training and learn about the disease. After my training as a physician, I ended up at Harvard Medical School doing research in MS. That was the beginning of my interest. I was doing research because of the patient I saw many years ago.
What brought you to UConn Health?
I’d been reading and learning about UConn Health for a long time as a whole – since my time at Harvard – and was very impressed with the research and now the recent partnership with Jackson Labs and the new investment and new hospital. When I read research paper on stem cells, I saw that the papers were from UConn and realized that this is a strong, academic institution. There are many additional reasons, but one of the most significant reasons is that I really respect and like the neurobiology of disease research that’s ongoing here. I think this is a world-class research institution in neurobiology, Alzheimer’s, aging, genetics, and genomics. UConn Health represents a unique position in the area compared to any other place with this combination of personalized medicine. Here you find a world-class mix of ingredients. Now, there is a need for better MS care and more research, and there was a need for someone to lead the program here. And, there is a need for patients’ education and engagement.
In New England, there is a high incidence of MS cases – especially in underserved populations of the region. This is ground zero for me for us to make an impact on patient care. I’ve been working in this concept of patient healing and patient education for six years. If you don’t do comprehensive care, patient engagement and education in MS, your patients will end up in an awful place. Patients need guidance to be proactive and to be their best advocate.
MS is a bad disease – not only because it affects the brain, but it also causes depression, and patients tend to lose their jobs. And, once you lose your job – as a human – it’s challenging. If you cannot pay for insurance, you are devalued; society will put a lot of constraints on you if you don’t have a job, and that is very impactful for patients. Besides, if you lack family support because you cannot work and having a disability worsens things, these end up causing family disruption or dissolution. Our patient demographics are at high risk, and you need to educate the patients. MS is very confusing for the patients, and they need an excellent advocate – a comprehensive group of people to help. Certain demographics are a high risk not only because of biology, but because of lack of education and access to care. I want to build a team that is invested in the patients in all the facets of patient care, which can be captured in two words: comprehensive and compassionate.
MS care shares some similarities to cancer care because it needs to be comprehensive and informative. Patients have lots of questions. Even though I’m a clinician scientist, over the last 10 years, it has been essential to introduce this critical component to my practice. We hope to learn from patients and others to innovate and deliver the best care that we can.
What past experience has prepared you for this role at UConn Health?
My training was in Boston and Philadelphia, and the demographics are similar to Conn. We have a very diverse population. I have seen it all. My response is to try to innovate. My last five years were very informative, having had very complicated cases at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. I built a team of people from different groups who were invested in working together. We created an MS community that I named, the Scarlet and Grey MS community. The idea of the community was to try to build a sense that we were working toward the same goal. It was important for the patient to feel that they belonged to something. I had a very specific purpose – I wanted to convince .5 to 1 percent of the entire faculty, staff and students of Ohio State to work in MS, even if they couldn’t or even if that wasn’t the primary thing they wanted to do. My goal was to inspire students to do MS research. It’s not just what’s happening in the brain, but it was how to care for patients. Even if you’re in engineering or architecture, what solutions can you bring to patients? It’s about being an evangelist to inspire the next generation and leverage all of these resources of the academic institution toward a goal: end MS. Because of my efforts and others on our team, we were nationally recognized for comprehensive MS care. And, for the last five years, we maintained that comprehensive care. I have been a leader in MS, and I have done cutting-edge research in stem cells and more notably in stem cell tourism – helping patients to understand that stem cell in MS is being researched, and we are doing the work to make it a reality for all.
What are your plans for UConn Health?
I’ve been very impressed with everything here and am very optimistic. We have the potential to become a world-class MS center. The clinical faculty is excellent – very knowledgeable with great expertise. We’re in the process of working on integration to formalize the process of working in a comprehensive manner for our patients. Furthermore, there are great MS researchers in basic sciences. I feel very fortunate to have all of these new collaborators, and they are very receptive to my new vision to integrate bench-to-bedside as a cornerstone of translational research.
Imitola, who has been studying MS for almost 20 years, has been internationally-recognized for his contributions to understanding how stem cells migrate to areas of injury that are important to MS. More recently, he was recognized for his work in stem cell education and tourism and for understanding how stem cells suffer during MS. He’s one of the few people in the world studying how stem cells suffer or are altered for someone who has MS. Dr. Imitola is passionate about patient care. “It’s good to be here for the opportunity to collaborate with scientists who are studying other aspects of neurobiology.”
He speaks Spanish and is learning several other languages in his spare time – which serves as a nice to surprise patients. He is married, and has a son who is an undergrad at Ohio State and a daughter in high school. “It was a big move – because you move from one state institution to another, but it’s good.”