Drs. Dalia Rotstein and Shannon Dunn are tackling multiple sclerosis

Using formidable skills to advance research, care and mentorship at St. Michael’s BARLO MS Centre.

Dr. Dalia Rotstein is a neurologist and clinical researcher. Dr. Shannon Dunn is a research scientist. They both specialize in multiple sclerosis and are working at St. Michael’s world-leading BARLO MS Centre to stop MS in its tracks. 

Women are three times more likely to develop MS than men, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the BARLO MS Centre attracts top female scientists interested in studying the disease. Dr. Rotstein’s research focuses on the roles of ethnicity, gender and vitamin D in MS; she’s also a clinician and educator who mentors students and residents. Dr. Dunn’s research focuses on genetic and environmental risk factors for MS, including smoking, gender and brain injury. 

As we reach the closing stretch of the campaign to fund the new BARLO MS Centre, Drs. Dunn and Rotstein share their plans to take on one of the world’s toughest health challenges. 

How did you get into MS research?

Dr. Rotstein: I was in neurology already, but I knew I wanted to work with women and help people with a chronic disease as their lives evolve, so MS was a good fit. I also saw that there were huge advances being made in MS and new opportunities for preventing long-term disability, so that pulled me in as well.

Dr. Dunn: I had a personal interest because my mom had MS, and I knew five women who got diagnosed in their 20s. I hadn’t been reading about multiple sclerosis when I was a student because it was such a bleak diagnosis and I was myself at risk. But finally, in the 1990s, there were some treatments that decreased the relapse rate, so I started reading more, and I got interested in the basic science of MS.

Where did you study before you came to St. Michael’s?

Dr. Rotstein: I did my undergraduate studies at Harvard, went to medical school at McGill and came to U of T for my neurology residency. Then I went back to Boston and did an MS fellowship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a master’s in public health at Harvard at the same time.

Dr. Dunn: I’m from Sudbury, and my ski coach in high school was doing research in a lab for his master’s and asked if I wanted to work there for the summer. I got hooked on the science and ended up doing my master’s and my PhD in that same lab. I did a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford in California. I came to St. Michael’s because of the BARLO MS Centre, to be connected to clinicians like Dalia and have access to clinical samples I can use for my research.

Are you working together?

Dr. Rotstein: We hope to. Some of the best science is driven by direct clinical observations that we then test in the lab, and then it comes back to the bedside to be applied as new treatments for patients. 

Dr. Dunn: Dalia has provided some blood samples so I can look at the immune cells for my studies, and hopefully in the future we’ll have a collaborative network. 

Is there a gender gap in MS science? 

Dr. Dunn: Certainly not here! We’ve got Dalia, we’ve got [renowned MS scientist] Dr. Jiwon Oh, we’re female dominant. And even in my academic department of immunology, there are a lot of female researchers. They are women with families who are doing great science and are great role models.

Dr. Rotstein: There has been a strong female presence in MS. But the headline speakers at international meetings and the chief investigators on clinical trials have been predominantly men, despite the many excellent female researchers. A lot of advocacy has happened in the past year on the international stage to promote female representation, which is important.

Is it hard to find work-life balance in your field?

Dr. Rotstein: It can be. I have two wonderful young kids, ages 3 and 5. There are unique challenges to that phase of life, and I’m sure there will be other challenges as they move into their teen years. The key is striking a balance. And I think mentorship can play an important role — just having someone say, ‘I’ve been there, it’s possible, and here are some strategies.’

What are your short- or long-term goals at the BARLO MS Centre?

Dr. Dunn: I have three people in my lab now, but I’m hoping in the short-term to build my group up to six and set up a clinical immunology program at the BARLO. Right now, I mostly do lab models of MS, but I’d like to set up biomarker panels to look at the immune system in human patients. I want to get the biobank going so we have human samples to work with. 

Dr. Rotstein: I’m working on the clinical front, the research front and the education front. I’m hoping to grow all of those, taking on new mentorship roles and expanding my research that may provide early insights into how to optimize therapy in MS. It’s small steps toward the goal of seeing much better outcomes for MS patients over the next 10 years. And the ultimate goal of halting MS entirely.

Click here to learn about our campaign to build the world-leading BARLO MS Centre. Or make a donation here.