Promising new research provides evidence that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, may be treatable using neural stem cells. A consortium of researchers at multiple institutions, including UMass Medical School, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have shown that neural stem cells, when transplanted into the spinal cord of a mouse model with familial ALS, slow disease onset and progression while improving motor function, breathing and survival time compared to untreated mice. A summary of the studies was published online in Science Translational Medicine.
ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder affecting the motor neurons in the central nervous system. As motor neurons die, the brain’s ability to send signals to the body’s muscles is compromised. This leads to loss of voluntary muscle movement, paralysis and eventually respiratory failure. The cause of most cases of ALS is not known. Approximately 10 percent of cases are inherited. Though investigators at UMass Medical School and elsewhere have identified several genes shown to cause inherited or familial ALS, almost 50 percent of these cases have an unknown genetic cause.
Neural stem cells are the precursors of all brain cells. They can self-renew, making more neural stem cells, and differentiate, becoming nerve cells or other brain cells. These cells can also rescue malfunctioning nerve cells and help preserve and regenerate brain tissue. But they’ve never before been studied extensively in a good model of adult ALS.
In 11 independent studies, the group, headed by Evan Snyder, MD, PhD, of the Burnham Institute, transplanted neural stem cells into the spinal cord of a mouse model of ALS. The transplanted neural stem cells benefited the mice with ALS by preserving the health and function of the remaining nerve cells. Specifically, the neural stem cells promoted the production of protective molecules that spared remaining nerve cells from destruction. They also reduced inflammation and suppressed the number of toxin-producing and disease-causing cells in the host’s spinal cord.
“It is striking that the stem cells improve motor neuron viability without generating new motor neurons. These findings encourage us to explore further the role of cell therapies in ALS,” said Robert Brown, DPhil, MD, the Leo P. and Theresa M. LaChance Chair in Medical Research and chair and professor of neurology. A leading expert in ALS, Dr. Brown led the team that discovered the first gene linked to familial ALS, a protein anti-oxidant known as superoxide dismutase, or SOD1, in 1993.
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