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Cracking the Code on Multiple Sclerosis

Amy Hernandez Self Portrait CURA Recipient

It was a splash of ice-cold water in the face. Amy Hernandez’s friend was only seventeen years old and just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that deteriorates the body. Hernandez (‘23) was in the second year of her molecular biology degree at BYU. The sudden, early-onset diagnosis prompted hours of research under Hernandez's mentor, microbiology and molecular biology professor Mary Davis, to answer the question: why is early MS onset in ethnic minorities reached at an earlier age than in Caucasian populations?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disorder that affects the central nervous system, sometimes leading to the inability to walk or function independently. Some individuals experience long periods of remission, and others have frequent attacks. While there is no cure, early diagnosis is key for improving quality of life and managing symptoms.

The majority of MS patients are of European descent, with females affected the most. While the reason for this is still unknown, scientists have identified more than 200 SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms)—or the mixed-up gene sequences—that causes MS across all ethnic backgrounds. However, the research has primarily studied males of European descent, leading to an increasing mortality rate for Non-Hispanic Black males. Hernandez was inspired by this ongoing research, particularly because the onset age for MS in people of color (~27) is lower than the average on-set age for Caucasian populations (~30). Her goal is “to understand and fix the small gap of knowledge” and hopefully make a change for ethnic minorities carrying the genetic code for this disease.

Hernandez watched her friend relapse three times in six months. She also vividly remembers her first encounter with someone affected by the disease, her middle school friend’s grandfather. “I had never met a quadriplegic before,” she recalls. Little did she know that nearly a decade later, as a sophomore at BYU, she would receive an award dedicated to shaping the research around this life-altering disease.

A CURA (College Undergraduate Research Awards) was granted to Hernandez for her mentor-based research on early onset MS for the 2021-22 school year. Her research examines EMRs (electronic medical records) for patterns in those with MS diagnoses. She presents her research this November.

Hernandez's interest in studying genetics was sparked before her friend’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis. It started after her grandmother passed away from diabetes in Guatemala. “The research that could have saved her life didn’t come to Guatemala until two, three years after she had passed away,” she explains. “If the research would have gotten to her a few years before that she’d probably still be around today.”

Hernandez remembers her grandmother visiting the States. “Her foot would be covered in ulcers, something people with diabetes will get, and I’d always take care of her as much as I could at ten years old.” This experience inspired Hernandez to learn more about genetic diseases and how to help those with diagnoses.

While genetics plays a significant role in the research, Hernandez wants to apply what she’s learned in her sociology classes to emphasize the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities in the field of genetic diseases. After taking a class from sociology professor Jacob Rugh, Hernandez says, “it gave me a lot to think about.” She read as many papers she as could find on MS, specifically on how it affects people of color and women. “It’s very important to just ask questions, because even if there’s no answer, maybe you can be the one to find that answer or help someone else find one,” she says.

With half of her college career still ahead of her, Hernandez has time to ask even more questions. “I want to keep on the track of minorities and MS, or women and MS,” she says. “Because it affects me, as a person of color and a woman.” It was recently surveyed that nearly 20 percent of College of Life Sciences students identify as a person of color, but Hernandez still feels minorities are sometimes “overlooked” within the STEM field.

“I’ve been in situations where I don’t feel welcomed,” she explains. “And it is uncomfortable when you’re the only one saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ or ‘I think the protocol said this’ and the [rest of the group] ignores me. But there are really good moments,” she clarifies. “Where people want to hear more and will listen to me, but it definitely pushes me to want to be on top of what I’m doing so I can show I belong in the room.”

Hernandez hopes to take a gap year after graduation and pursue either graduate studies or PA school. Her interest in diseases extends to their treatments; she’s considering studying ways to alleviate some of the treatment side effects. Hernandez also hopes to study diabetes with Professor Davis before she graduates.