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Scientists try to restore dying motor neurons to potentially stop ALS

April 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Every 60 minutes in the U.S. somebody is diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It's a disease that comes out of nowhere and can strike even the healthiest of individuals.

Within six months, 58-year-old Toni Brown went from the picture of health to needing a caregiver. As the director of group fitness at L.A.'s Spectrum Athletic Clubs, she taught spin classes three times a week.

Today her bike sits unused. The new equipment she trains on is a walker and a wheelchair.

"How does this happen to a healthy person? How does it happen to anybody? At this point, they just don't seem to know," said Brown.

In September, Brown felt flu like symptoms and started to lose her balance and began limping. After weeks of tests, she was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gherig's disease, which causes the nerve cells that control movement to die. The cause of the disease is unknown.

"It's one of those rare diseases where we don't have any handle on this disease in terms of treatment either. So it's a horrible prognosis. It's a horrible diagnosis to get," said Dr. Clive Svendsen, director of the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute.

But he's is keeping hope alive. Dr. Svendsen heads a unique study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the ALS Society. If scientists can find a way to restore dying motor neurons, it could potentially halt the disease.

"My lab has been working on this for 10 years. So we're a long way down the line from moving this into the clinic," said Dr. Svendsen.

In a lab at Cedars-Sinai, researchers are working on specifically-engineered stem cells that would restore and protect dying motor neurons.

"We place them in the spinal cord where the motor neurons died and instead of replacing them, they protect them," said Dr. Svendsen..

The next step is to test it on humans. It's still a long way off, but Brown hopes sharing her story will move people to support ALS research.

"If they could understand what caused it, they could try to cure it," said Brown. "It's exists and it happens to anybody."

Brown attends an ALS clinic every three months where she meets with doctors and therapists. She's hoping to qualify for a clinical trial soon. She also plans on participating in the Walk to Defeat ALS this October.