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It might not be immediately obvious how research developments in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS — or, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) would be appropriate to follow here on Neuron News. However, this author has a personal family member currently dealing with the devastating disease, so we’ve been personally reviewing the progress in the field. And, with a little trivial forward thinking, there is an important connection with the advancement of neurotechnology.
Yesterday, a collaboration between Columbia and Harvard Universities announced in Science a fabulous new development that offers promise in the short-term discovery of drugs as well as longer term neuro-therapeutic technologies.
The key problem with ALS patients is that motor neurons–particularly those affecting function in breathing and swallowing–degenerate and die off for unknown reasons. So, the general idea of this research program is to develop a technique to take skins cells of a patient and convert them into stem cells, or the “universal cell” that can potentially turn itself into any other cell given just the right biochemical nudge. Now, with a vast supply of genetically appropriate stem cells that will agree with the personal biology of the patient, convert them into motor neurons and implant them into regions of the body to integrate into neural systems that have been severely degraded by the disease.
This is certainly an exciting development for nearing potential therapies for ALS, although real clinical progress is likely still many years away. If you know of anyone affected by ALS or are interested in supporting the research, please thoroughly read the articles referenced below and consider a donation to The ALS Association.
In addition, this research provides experimental evidence of a new technique developed just last Fall called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. This is a very important fundamental technological advance that should guide the future of neurotechnologies.
Specifically, if neuroprosthetic devices are to be successfully integrated into the nervous system of a human being, it seems reasonable that the genetic make-up of the neurons living on the implanted device should compatible, if not identical, to the genetics of the host neurons. There might be unrealized neuro-communication factors that are influenced by genetic coding, and a fully successful device might need to be grown using neurons developed directly from the human host.
“Harvard-Columbia Team Creates Neurons from ALS Patient’s Skin Cells” :: CUMC News :: July 31, 2008 :: [ READ CUMC Press Release ]
“Stem Cell Breakthrough in ALS Research” :: ScienceNOW Daily News :: July 31, 2008 :: [ READ ]
“Stem cell technique is ‘significant advance'” :: Telegraph.co.uk :: August 1, 2008 :: [ READ ]
EmaxHealth :: [ READ SUMMARY OF MEDIA COVERAGE ]
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