ALS Research Roundup April 2005

by ALSN Staff on Sun, 2005-04-03 17:00
Article Highlights:

Research news as of March 2005

Embryonic stem cells can become motor neurons

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced online on Jan. 30, in Nature Biotechnology, that they’ve developed a chemical recipe to coax human embryonic stem cells to develop into motor neurons, the muscle-controlling nerve cells that are lost in ALS.

Xue-Jun Li and colleagues used two federally approved lines of stem cells and exposed them to retinoic acid early and to several other compounds later on.

Vassilis Koliatsos, an MDA-supported neuropathologist studying stem cells at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says the Wisconsin researchers’ recipe works well in laboratory containers, but that putting them into animals will likely “hold many surprises.”

Koliatsos said it’s unclear whether the new motor neurons would survive in the face of an overwhelming degenerative process like that seen in ALS. And, he notes, even if they did survive, getting them to “talk to” muscle cells is another unmet challenge.

In ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases, Koliatsos says, every neuron lost increases the chance that more neurons will be lost. “It’s theoretically possible that we can put in the right number of cells such that the neurodegenerative process can be delayed significantly,” Koliatsos said, adding that not much else can yet be predicted.

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Vitamin E, military service may affect ALS risk

Data collected from nearly a million people who participated in a questionnaire-based study beginning in 1982 and ending in 1998 have been used to determine what, if any, links exist between diet and other lifestyle factors and causes of death.

When the data were analyzed with respect to ALS, investigators found that taking vitamin E supplements may help prevent the disease, and that service in the military may add to the risk of developing it.

Those who reported taking vitamin E supplements for at least 15 days a month for 10 years or longer had 38 percent as great a chance of developing ALS as those who never used vitamin E. For those taking vitamin E for fewer than 10 years, the risk was 59 percent of the risk for non-vitamin E users.

Albert Ascherio, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and an author on both studies, cautions that no one should use vitamin E on the basis of these results, which need confirmation. The vitamin E study is in the January Annals of Neurology.

Data on military service were collected on approximately 400,000 men who filled out the questionnaire. All military service took place before the Gulf War. Of the 280 ALS-related deaths recorded, 217 were among the 281,874 men who had served in the military, implying an ALS death rate of about 0.08 percent among the ex-military; and 63 were among the 126,414 who had never served, making an ALS death rate of about 0.05 percent in that group.

Men who had served in the military had an ALS-related death rate that was 1.53 times the rate for men who had never served.

In their Jan. 11 paper in Neurology, the authors say the results suggest that exposures associated with military service but not unique to the Gulf War should be investigated.

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ALS epidemiology study under way

An MDA-funded study of ALS “epidemiology” (disease patterns) is under way at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, headed by Hiroshi Mitsumoto, co-director of the MDA/ALS Center at that institution.

The study will use interviews, questionnaires and blood samples to investigate what, if any, relationship exists among factors in a person’s residential, employment, medical, military and lifestyle history; his or her DNA; and the development of ALS.

The researchers prefer residents of the New York area, at least for the present. The study is scheduled to remain open until January 2007.

For more information, contact Ani Sara Thankachan in New York at (212) 305-4746.

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Minocycline trial seeks participants

There are openings for participants in a large, multicenter trial of minocycline, an antibiotic in the tetracycline family, in ALS.

Minocycline appears to have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties and penetrates the central nervous system.

At sites across the United States, minocycline is being tested against a placebo (inert substance) in 400 adults with ALS who have fairly good respiratory function. Patients taking riluzole can participate if the riluzole dose is stable.

For more information, see the clinical trials database at

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New CoQ10 study opens in 19 centers

A trial of high doses of coenzyme Q10 (coQ10) in 185 people with ALS is now open for recruitment across the United States. Investigators will compare coQ10 with a placebo (inactive substance) to see whether it slows the course of the disease.

CoQ10 is a natural compound that acts inside the mitochondria, the “powerhouses” of the cell. It supports the cell’s energy metabolism and helps to neutralize free radicals, molecules that carry an electrical charge and can damage other cellular components.

The compound has been found to be safe and relatively well tolerated in people with ALS, even when taken at high doses.

Adults with ALS who aren’t ventilator-dependent or who use part-time noninvasive ventilation, have had ALS for less than five years, and who meet other study criteria, are eligible.

For more information, see the clinical trials database at

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