Dr Karen Ribbons

Dr Karen Ribbons - MS Researcher
Research Program:
Project Grant
2011 Project Grant

What are your research interests?

  • Improvement in the evaluation of disease progression in multiple sclerosis (MS):

I am investigating the use of novel MRI scanning techniques for evaluating disease progression in patients and determining how the findings from these scanning procedures relate to clinical symptoms, with an emphasis on their effects on learning and memory function and fatigue. By being able to more accurately predict the disease course in patients, it will assist neurologists in making better treatment choices and thereby provide patients with better quality of life.

  • Investigating factors that influence learning and memory difficulties in MS patients.

A high proportion of MS patients experience cognitive difficulties, which impacts significantly on their working lives. My research projects are investigating ways to best monitor symptoms and understand factors that can exacerbate these aspects of the disease. I am also interested in evaluating MS therapies in their ability to attenuate these symptoms, which will I hope improve treatment choices.

  • Understanding the mechanisms that contribute to fatigue experienced by MS patients.

Fatigue is also a symptom of MS that has a dramatic impact on social and socio-economic wellbeing of MS patients. No definitive underlying cause of fatigue in MS has been found. Our group is currently developing novel MRI scanning techniques and investigating biochemical triggers to help unravel the changes in the brain associated with symptoms of fatigue.

Why did you get into research?

Growing up, I always loved science and asking “why”. At university, I fell in love with biology and learning about the physiology and function of the human body. I remember having family friends who suffered from chronic gastrointestinal disease and were taking medications, but being told that they would never be cured. This is a devastating prospect for anyone to face, but particularly for children and young people who may be facing a lifetime of symptoms.

My lifelong questioning of “why” was then channeled into a career in which I was able to try to unravel the underlying mechanisms involved in pathology of chronic diseases, initially in gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease and more recently in multiple sclerosis, both of which are currently lifelong conditions that often arise at an early age.

What would be the ultimate goal for your research?

My ultimate goal would be to contribute to the knowledge of the underlying mechanisms involved in multiple sclerosis. I would hope that my research endeavours will contribute to the wellbeing and quality of life of people with MS. It would also be a goal to find triggers of immune system dysfunction that may not only have importance in understanding one chronic disease, but may have relevance in understanding a range of other chronic conditions.


Dr Ribbons completed her undergraduate studies at Flinders University in 1987 then attained her PhD at the University of Adelaide in Faculty of Medicine, with a research project investigating the role of peptide growth factors as potential ulcer-healing agents in chronic colonic diseases.

From 1993-1996 she was a postdoctoral research fellow at University of California, Davis, and University of Louisiana, New Orleans. During this time Dr Ribbons developed a novel model of ulcerative colitis which was utilised by a number of pharmaceutical companies to evaluate new drug therapies. Dr Ribbons also developed an interest in the role of oxidative radicals in inflammatory conditions.

She returned to Australia in 1997 and began working for Progen Pharmaceuticals, QLD, initially as Drug Development Manager and then as Clinical Research Manager. Over her six years at Progen she helped take a new drug therapy from initial development in the laboratory, to the pre-clinical testing phase and then on to first human exposure and early phase clinical testing for treatment of solid tumours.

Since 2010 Karen has been working with the Multiple Sclerosis Research Team at the HMRI and John Hunter Hospital as Study Co-ordinator / Research Fellow. In this role she oversees and manages investigator-initiated clinical research projects being undertaken by the team, with focus being on cognitive impairment in MS and improvement of the clinical management of MS. She is currently co-supervising two PhD students in projects involving the application of novel MRI matrices for monitoring disease progression in MS.

Future Focus

If we can understand better ways of tracking changes in brain function and symptomology of the disease, it will give us a greater insight into the progression of the disease and provide better ways of exploring the underlying causes of MS.

Specialised/Technical Skills

  • Development / interpretation of novel MRI metrics in the brain
  • Implementation and interpretation of cognitive function testing
  • Co-ordination and management of all aspects of clinical trials


  • Department of Neurology, John Hunter Hospital
  • Information-Based Medicine, HMRI


The cytokine gene expression profile in multiple sclerosis patients with chronic fatigue - Mark Smith Multiple Sclerosis Research Project Grant
Project Grant