UA scientists fight Lou Gehrig's disease - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

UA scientists fight Lou Gehrig's disease

Researchers look to replace lost nerve cells

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Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 11:00 pm

Researchers at the University of Arizona have begun to develop a new way to fight a most puzzling disease.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease that gradually destroys nerve cells in a sufferer’s brain and spine, affecting moving and ultimately causing death. Most may know the fatal malady by another name: “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” named for the baseball great who died from it in 1941.

Through their work at UA’s Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, according to a university news release, scientists one day hope to find ways to stimulate the body’s production of nerve cells to replace those lost after the onset of ALS and other neurologic diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“We are dedicated to laboratory and clinical-based research and to the comprehensive care of patients with neurologic disease, including ALS,” Dr. Bruce M. Coull, professor and head of UA’s Department of Neurology, said in a statement. “Our hope is that this cutting-edge research will eradicate ALS within our lifetime.”

The UA researchers plan to “re-train” progenitor cells to produce new nerve cells in a patient’s body. Progenitor cells produce almost all the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord during the first phases of human development from the embryonic (first eight weeks) and through the fetal (eight weeks to birth) periods. Once the process is complete, however, the progenitor cells no longer produce nerve cells.

The progenitors remain present in an adult’s body, which is why UA researchers think they may be able to restart their nerve-producing functions. It’s a complex process, fraught with technological hurdles.

The university’s ALS research is funded by the Jim Himelic Foundation, which was started in 2000 by family and friends of the former juvenile court judge who died from ALS that February. Since 2001, the foundation has raised $492,000 for research, with a goal of raising $1 million in seed money.

With such a boost, the university could conduct preliminary research and eventually obtain larger government and private grants.

Already, the university has hired cellular biologist Jonathan Flax, who is one of 10 scientists nationwide conducting progenitor cell research.

Also, neurologist Katalin Scherer will work to apply the university’s ALS research in a clinical setting as she treats patients at University Physicians Hospital and Clinics.

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