Researchers’ discovery may revolutionize treatment of Lou Gehrig’s disease

A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute have found a key link between prions and the neurodegenerative disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The discovery is significant as it opens the door to novel approaches to the treatment of ALS.

A pivotal paper published by the team this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), demonstrates that the SOD1 protein (superoxide dismutase 1), which has been shown to be implicated in the ALS disease process, exhibits prion-like properties. The researchers found that SOD1 participates in a process called template-directed misfolding.  This term refers to the coercion of one protein by another protein to change shape and accumulate in large complexes in a fashion similar to the process underlying prion diseases.

These findings provide a molecular explanation for the progressive spread of ALS through the nervous system, and highlight the central role of the propagation of misfolded proteins in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Our work has identified a specific molecular target, which when manipulated halts the conversion of the SOD1 protein to a misfolded, disease-causing form,” says Dr. Neil Cashman, Scientific Director of PrioNet Canada, Canada Research Chair in Neurodegeneration and Protein Misfolding at UBC, and academic director of the Vancouver Coastal Health ALS Centre. “This discovery is a first-step toward the development of targeted treatments that may stop progression of ALS.”

ALS is a progressive neuromuscular disease in which nerve cells die, resulting in paralysis and death. Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Canadians currently live with this fatal disease, for which there is no effective treatment yet.

“For many years, ALS has remained a complex puzzle and we have found a key piece to help guide the research community to solutions,” says Dr. Leslie Grad, a co-first author of the project and current Manager of Scientific Programs at PrioNet Canada. “PrioNet is further exploring this discovery through newly-funded research projects.”

The work was completed by Dr. Neil Cashman’s lab at the Brain Research Centre based at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alberta. The research was supported by PrioNet Canada and in part by Amorfix Life Sciences and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

PrioNet Canada, based in Vancouver, has achieved international attention for scientific discoveries and risk management strategies directed at controlling prion diseases, and is now directing capacity into therapeutic solutions for prion-like diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

One of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence, PrioNet Canada (www.prionetcanada.ca) is developing strategies to help solve the food, health safety, and socioeconomic problems associated with prion diseases. The network brings together scientists, industry, and public sector partners through its multidisciplinary research projects, training programs, events, and commercialization activities. PrioNet is hosted by the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute in Vancouver.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and one of only two Canadian institutions consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities. UBC is a place that inspires bold, new ways of thinking that have helped make it a national leader in areas as diverse as community service learning, sustainability and research commercialization.  UBC offers more than 50,000 students a range of innovative programs and attracts $550 million per year in research funding from government, non-profit organizations and industry through 7,000 grants.

Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI) (www.vchri.ca) is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which includes BC’s largest academic and teaching health sciences centres: VGH, UBC Hospital, and GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. In academic partnership with the University of British Columbia, VCHRI brings innovation and discovery to patient care, advancing healthier lives in healthy communities across British Columbia, Canada, and beyond.

The Brain Research Centre comprises more than 200 investigators with multidisciplinary expertise in neuroscience research ranging from the test tube, to the bedside, to industrial spin-offs. The centre is a partnership of UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. For more information, visit www.brain.ubc.ca.

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