Michael Benatar, associate professor of neurology and epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, received an MDA grant totaling $525,000 to continue research into the early stage of FALS — familial, or inherited, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease) — prior to symptom onset.
With funding from MDA, Benatar began his "pre-FALS" study in 2007, tracking a group of 30 people at risk for developing ALS because they harbor a mutation in the SOD1 gene, known to cause some forms of the disease. His team collected a series of physical, functional and neurological data over time in an effort to discern early biological markers ("biomarkers") of the disease process, and established a repository of biological samples collected from the study participants.
In Benatar's new follow-up study, the original group of 30 participants will expand to include presymptomatic individuals with mutations in other ALS susceptibility genes such as TDP43 and FUS.
Study aims include better definition of the presymptomatic stage of familial ALS, identification of environmental factors that might modify the age of disease onset among genetically susceptible individuals, continued development of biomarkers of early disease, and expansion of the existing collection of biological specimens.
Benatar's exploration into the presymptomatic phase of ALS could facilitate earlier recognition and diagnosis of both the familial and sporadic forms of the disease, which in turn could point the way toward therapeutics aimed at prevention or delay of ALS onset, as well as attempts to stop or slow the disease before it causes irreversible damage.
"MDA has shown great foresight in recognizing the importance of this study and the kind of long-term contribution that it can make to our understanding of the disease," Benatar said.
Funding for this MDA grant began August 1, 2010.