Dr. Jason Plemel

Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Dr. Jason Plemel, Assistant Professor, University of Alberta 

Dr. Jason Plemel is a Canada Research Chair in Glial Neuroimmunology and Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Neurology, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. His laboratory investigates microglia – our brain and spinal cord’s primary immune cells – and the role they play during regeneration and injury to white matter in multiple sclerosis (MS), a disorder where our immune system attacks our central nervous system. Microglia are part of a larger family of cells called glia, which we now know are vitally important to the health and wellness of the brain and spinal cord. His lab is making strides to understand how these microglia are both critical for white matter regeneration, but also contributing to white matter injury. They are working to understand the mechanisms of cell death and white matter degeneration, as well as the complex immune response following white matter injury. In addition to helping people with MS, Dr. Plemel’s discoveries could also help people with other central nervous system diseases.  

Learn more about Dr. Plemel

What is the focus of your research? How did you become interested in MS research?   

  My group focuses on how the brain’s primary immune cell—known as microglia—change, direct, and contribute to white matter diseases like MS. My interest in MS began as a graduate student. I was working on white matter repair in the context of spinal cord injury and from there I wanted to understand better how this happens during MS. MS is a disease that has clear demarcated damage to white matter and I wanted to understand what causes this damage. I also wanted to understand better the repair process to regenerate white matter. In parallel, I had a family member and a person I knew from the community impacted by MS, so I had an appreciation for the impact of this terrible disease, which motivated me to conduct research in this area.  

What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?  

 I have many inspirations. I am inspired by the people with MS I meet in the community and their resilience. I am inspired by amazing people doing research in my lab and their passion and scientific growth. I am inspired by so many scientists around the world that are pushing the boundary to develop new tools allowing us to dig deeper and understand disease processes much clearer. Finally, I am inspired by the many successes in drug development to help people with MS. What really drives me though is wanting my research team to make discoveries that will ultimately be useful to help treat MS.   

How do you hope to change the lives of people living with MS through your research?  

There are two areas I hope we can find new ways to treat MS. My group is working to understand and promote remyelination, or the repair of myelin. For people with MS remyelination is often limited and gets worse with age. We are working to understand this process, why it gets worse with age, and we hope to develop new medications to boost this important process. The second area of MS research my lab studies is the causes of white matter injury. We are exploring white matter injury and hope to identify new targets to protect from this damage.   

What do you enjoy most about your research? What are some of the challenges you face?  

For me, I love the process of trying to understand the disease. For me, I love working with my team to talk about the data we generate, what it means, and how to move forward. It is exciting the creative brilliance of  people working together to understand something new. For anyone who spends any time in research, there are definitely highs and lows. Often there are technical hurdles, or limited resources that can make progress challenging. Research is hard and expensive and slow. As a group we are always at the frontier of knowledge working to understand complex systems. Many of the team members in my research group are newer to research, which is exciting to see the research world new through their eyes, but challenging to make progress with so much for them to still learn.    

How important is the support from MS Canada in your research?  

The support by MS Canada (MSC) is critical for us to make progress. Through the years I have been funded by the MSC throughout my career, and likely would not be an MS researcher without their trainee funding programs. I have also learned a great deal and met friends and collaborators through the MSC endMS training network. Currently, team members of my lab are funded by MSC allowing them to focus their time on research in the lab. We just obtained our first discovery grant, which will continue an exciting research direction in my lab on white matter injury. These funds are absolutely needed to make progress in this research area. The endMS training network funded by MSC also is essential for trainees in my group to learn about MS and meet other Canadian researchers. From the early phases of my career till now, the MSC has supported my research journey.