In search of . . . the genetics of ALS: John Landers, PhD On Tuesdays, the Daily Voice features a first-person narrative from a researcher explaining the science behind a recent grant, and the inspiration or impetus behind becoming a scientist at UMass Medical School. If you know of a researcher you’d like to see profiled, send an email to UMMScommunications@umassmed.edu. John Landers, PhD, associate professor of neurology, talks about his grant Identification of genes causative for familial ALS gene using exome sequencing, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: one year, $359,844; recommended for three more years, $1.1 million
In general terms, my laboratory is focused on understanding the genetic basis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a late-onset progressive neurodegenerative disease that results in the dying of motor neurons. These neurons are responsible for conducting signals from the brain and spinal cord to muscle, resulting in voluntary movement. As a result of motor neurons dying, a patient with ALS becomes paralyzed and death from respiratory failure typically occurs in three to five years. Although most cases are sporadic in nature, about 10 percent are clustered within families—or familial—and are likely the result of a genetic mutation. Our goal is to identify the exact genetic mutation in these cases of familial ALS. Our approach is to utilize new technologies in DNA sequencing to examine literally every gene in the human genome. It is our hope that through our efforts, we will identify several additional genetic causes of familial ALS. Such a finding could immediately translate to a DNA diagnostic test for such cases. However, as we understand more of the genetic factors of ALS, it will also help us to understand the cellular pathways that are altered in both sporadic and familial forms of ALS. Understanding these pathways is a key step in the development of therapeutics for this debilitating disease. Even at a young age, I was always interested in math and science. However, in tenth grade I had the pleasure of having a tremendous biology teacher who opened a whole new world to me. Through her excellent teaching and experiments, she was able to make all aspects of biology interesting. Above all though, she taught us how DNA, a long, simple repetitive molecule, was able to hold the instructions for every life on our planet. From there, I was hooked. When I was considering coming to UMass Medical School, what I found most appealing was the close collaborative interactions among the faculty members. I didn’t feel like I was being hired by a university, but rather that I was joining a team. Since my arrival, my impression of this collaborative environment has only increased. Everyone I have encountered has been more than willing to help in any possible way. As a result of collaboration, our research has progressed and broadened faster than it would have had we worked alone. What excites me most about my research is overcoming the everyday challenges. There is the thrill that for every question that we answer, we come just a bit closer to finding that “needle in a haystack.” There is also the anticipation of learning something that no one has ever known before. In addition, I also thoroughly enjoy the enthusiasm, excitement and camaraderie that exist within the members of my team towards advancing our research.