Harvard Researchers Identify Potential ALS Treatment

A new study shows blocking receptors in nervous system cells may reduce the effects of the disease.

These days, advocates of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research have a lot to be excited about. As of August 12, the ALS Association reported that the now-viral Ice Bucket Challenge has raised $4 million and attracted some 70,000 new donors to the cause.

Now, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) has offered another reason to celebrate; thanks to a series of studies conducted over the last eight years, researchers have identified a potential new treatment for the disease.

Published in an August issue of Science Translational Medicine, the new study found that blocking specific receptors in nervous system cells known as glial cells could reduce the effects of the disease. Researchers know from previous studies that glial cells play a role in the degeneration of motor neurons, or cells which control muscle activities like walking and talking. The CDC reports that these activities are limited for people with ALS, as the disease leads to muscle weakness and paralysis.

According to an HSCI report:

In a paper in 2007, [researchers] demonstrated that glial cells—background cells in the nervous system—were involved in motor neuron degeneration in a mouse model of ALS. And the following year, the researchers reported that the same thing was happening in human motor neurons made from patient stem cells, and proposed that prostanoid molecules, a group of substances involved in inflammation in everything from pain to pregnancy, might be playing a role in the glial cells.

Now, the researchers have shown through genetic and chemical experiments that there is a relationship between ALS and changes in the prostanoid receptors of glial cells. They further reported that when the affected receptor is blocked, the ALS damage done by the glial cells is reduced.

“This stem cell model was predictive of something that can happen inside a whole animal, and its important because it demonstrates that this is really an important target for an ALS therapeutic,” HSCI stem cell biologist Kevin Eggan said in the report. “If we can inhibit this receptor in an ALS patient, we might slow down the progression of the disease, and that would be a huge step.”

The researchers say that the results of this study further suggest that medications currently in testing for the treatment of other diseases may be effective for ALS patients as well.