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OSU Discovers Possible ALS Breakthrough

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CORVALLIS, Ore. — Researchers at Oregon State University have helped discover a potential therapy for people suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

With the help from scientists in Australia and the United Kingdom, OSU researchers say they have discovered that a copper compound – already used for other purposes – may also form the basis for a therapy for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“In this disease, the motor neurons start to die – one after another until you cannot move a single muscle in your body,” said OSU Researcher Joe Beckman.

Beckman, a distinguished progessor of biochemistry and biophysics, says ALS is a fatal disease that is untreatable. Scientists have been researching the disease for decades, trying to come up with some sort of cure.

“Typically there are 5,000 people diagnosed a year, but it’s a devastating disease and that’s why you hear about it so much,” Beckman said. “And almost everyone I know, knows someone who has a friend or a father who has died from the disease.”

But OSU researchers helped discover that copper ATSM could provide a therapy for the disease: a compound made up of copper, rocket fuel, a commonly used pesticide, and the fake butter product that is used in popcorn.

Researchers have been testing the therapy on mice and rats, and have already observed an increase in the lifespan of the affected mice by 26%.

“We can take a human gene that causes ALS, put it in a mouse, and those mice develop ALS within 4 months,” Beckman said.

But copper ATSM, a relatively cheap compound, is extending their lives.

“It’s one of the easiest ones to make,” Beckman said. “Which is pretty cool that we’re not talking about an expensive biological product that will cost $100,000. This can be done very inexpensively.”

Researchers also have a way to test the drug to see how it helps measure mutated proteins in the spinal cords of rats and mice.

“We can show the impact of the drug relative to control animals,” said Jared Williams, a graduate student who works in Beckman’s lab.

The compound is a promising discovery that could help save thousands of lives.

“It’s really exciting to be able to offer hope,” Beckman said.

But at the same time, scientists say so far, they have only worked with mice and rats.

“We have a lot of hope, but we also have to be patient and understand that it may not work,” Beckman said.

He hopes that copper ATSM could make a difference for humans, but the discovery is just the first step in a complicated research process.

“I have a compound that looks promising,” Beckman said. “There are a lot of people dying a horrible death, and they’re desperate to try it. And the ethics of this are very complex. And what I do not want to do is to give a drug that is going to make them sicker or die more rapidly. And we have to be very, very careful in how we test this and think of all the possibilities and all the things that might go wrong.”

The next step is to try to formulate a drug for humans, but to also make sure that it is safe.

“If it does work, we also want to know what are the complications,” Beckman said. “So actually, I am a little terrified of what this involves for the next couple years.”

However, researchers say the discovery is exciting, and they hope the therapy could also help those with Parkinson’s Disease.

The study discussing copper ATSM was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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