UCI researchers studying ways to slow the progression of ALS

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A diagnosis of ALS is devastating. The rare neurological disease, also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease" attacks nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. (KABC)

A diagnosis of ALS is devastating. The rare neurological disease, also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease" attacks nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. And it's progressive, meaning symptoms get worse over time.

There's no treatment, or way to stop the disease, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine are working on a way to help stop the progression of the disease.

One of the participants, is 45-year-old Eric Schwarz. He has lived his life focused on his family and his job in fitness. Now, physician visits and his fight with ALS fills his mind. His motor neurons are quickly dying off. "There was no treatment, let alone a cure. There was just nothing." Schwarz explains.

Dr. Namita Goyal, a neurologist at UCI, describes the grim progression of ALS. "Within two to five years, they lose the ability to move, to speak, to swallow and eventually breathe," Goyal said.

Schwarz said, "I remember going to appointments and hoping it was cancer." Shortly after his diagnosis, Eric learned about the ALS Brainstorm clinical trial at UC Irvine. Goyal is investigating a therapy engineered from a patient's own harvested cells.
"These stem cells then secrete growth factors to promote motor cell regeneration, reduce inflammation and the idea is that their motor cells can live longer," Goyal said.

Stem cells are taken from the patient and are brought to a lab where they are injected back into the patient within a month. That will happen two more times over the course of 28 weeks.

Earlier studies showed promise. "Patients' symptoms slowed down and in some cases actually improved," Goyal said.

A month after his injection, Eric noticed improvement in his hands. "I looked at my wife and said, 'This is incredible,'" Schwarz said.

"It's empowering to have hope both for the patient, and the physician," Goyal said.

UCI researchers, along with five other centers, want to enroll 200 ALS patients in this phase three trial.

Schwarz, who has started his own foundation to support ALS research and education, hopes others will be encouraged to take part in the trial.

"It's a long shot, but man, it has changed, honestly, how I get up in the morning," Schwarz said.
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