Findings point toward one of first therapies for Lou Gehrig's disease

June 12, 2014

Researchers have determined that a copper compound known for decades may form the basis for a therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.

In a new study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists from Australia, the United States (Oregon), and the United Kingdom showed in laboratory animal tests that oral intake of this compound significantly extended the lifespan and improved the locomotor function of transgenic mice that are genetically engineered to develop this debilitating and terminal disease.

In humans, no therapy for ALS has ever been discovered that could extend lifespan more than a few additional months. Researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University say this approach has the potential to change that, and may have value against Parkinson's disease as well.

"We believe that with further improvements, and following necessary human clinical trials for safety and efficacy, this could provide a valuable new therapy for ALS and perhaps Parkinson's disease," said Joseph Beckman, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

"I'm very optimistic," said Beckman, who received the 2012 Discovery Award from the OHSU Medical Research Foundation as the leading medical researcher in Oregon.

ALS was first identified as a progressive and in the late 1800s and gained international recognition in 1939 when it was diagnosed in American baseball legend Lou Gehrig. It's known to be caused by in the deteriorating and dying, and has been traced to mutations in , zinc superoxide dismutase, or SOD1. Ordinarily, superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant whose proper function is essential to life.

When SOD1 is lacking its metal co-factors, it "unfolds" and becomes toxic, leading to the death of motor neurons. The metals copper and zinc are important in stabilizing this protein, and can help it remain folded more than 200 years.

"The damage from ALS is happening primarily in the spinal cord and that's also one of the most difficult places in the body to absorb copper," Beckman said. "Copper itself is necessary but can be toxic, so its levels are tightly controlled in the body. The therapy we're working toward delivers copper selectively into the cells in the spinal cord that actually need it. Otherwise, the compound keeps copper inert."

"This is a safe way to deliver a micronutrient like copper exactly where it is needed," Beckman said.

By restoring a proper balance of copper into the brain and spinal cord, scientists believe they are stabilizing the superoxide dismutase in its mature form, while improving the function of mitochondria. This has already extended the lifespan of affected mice by 26 percent, and with continued research the scientists hope to achieve even more extension.

The compound that does this is called copper (ATSM), has been studied for use in some cancer treatments, and is relatively inexpensive to produce.

"In this case, the result was just the opposite of what one might have expected," said Blaine Roberts, lead author on the study and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who received his doctorate at OSU working with Beckman.

"The treatment increased the amount of mutant SOD, and by accepted dogma this means the animals should get worse," he said. "But in this case, they got a lot better. This is because we're making a targeted delivery of copper just to the cells that need it.

"This study opens up a previously neglected avenue for new disease therapies, for ALS and other neurodegenerative disease," Roberts said.

Explore further: Progression of Lou Gehrig's disease explained

Related Stories

Progression of Lou Gehrig's disease explained

October 17, 2011

Researchers in Uruguay and Oregon have discovered a previously unknown type of neural cell that appears to be closely linked to the progression of amytrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, that they believe will ...

Research teams unite for research on Lou Gehrig's Disease

December 10, 2013

Lisa Miller and Paul Gelfand, biophysical chemists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, recently visited the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory to supplement their research ...

Researchers discover how ALS spreads

February 18, 2014

A study led by University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researchers has revealed how the fatal neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.