The ALS Association’s ice bucket challenge has taken social media by storm. Over the last month, Facebook has been crowded with videos of Bill Gates, Kevin Durant, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and countless others getting doused with buckets of freezing water on their heads, all to raise awareness and support for research on the neurodegenerative illness.
For one Oklahoma scientist, the challenge has helped bring attention to research that has too long flown beneath the radar.
“For rare diseases like ALS, it’s important that people understand what it is and why the need for research funding is so great,” said Holly Van Remmen, Ph.D., who studies ALS and other neurodegenerative conditions in her laboratory at OMRF.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects an estimated 30,000 Americans. The disease attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in the gradual loss of motor function.
Early symptoms of ALS often include increasing muscle weakness, especially involving the arms and legs, speech, swallowing or breathing. When muscles no longer receive the messages from the motor neurons, patients may become totally paralyzed. The disease is always fatal.
“ALS is a terrible, devastating disease,” Van Remmen said. “It’s also difficult to diagnose, and by the time there is a diagnosis, the only hope is to delay progression of the disease.”
Currently, the sole approved treatment for ALS, Riluzole, extends patients’ lives only by two to three months. Researchers are focusing on finding other treatments that can extend this timeline and improve patients’ quality of life.
But, according to Van Remmen, finding new therapeutic approaches has been challenging. “Many treatments that have shown promise in pre-clinical studies have failed to work in human patients,” she said.
Van Remmen and her colleagues at OMRF study the role of oxidative stress in the loss of vital muscle as we age and how that could relate to ALS and other diseases of aging. By understanding how oxidative stress affects motor neurons—cells in the central nervous system that control muscles—they might be able to find ways to delay or prevent the progression of ALS and other neurodegenerative conditions.
“For an illness like ALS, which affects a relatively small percentage of the population, raising funds for research can be difficult,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Still, we have to remember that even diseases that we call rare claim thousands of lives each year, so it’s vital that we continue to use every possible avenue to make progress in the laboratory.”
Like Van Remmen, Prescott sees the ice-bucket challenge as a boost to ALS research and medical research in general. “ALS is a complicated disease, and it will require complicated solutions,” Prescott said. “The more support people provide to research, the faster we can move toward finding answers for patients.”