In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

July 8, 2014

Could stem cells be the answer to ALS?

By In the Loop

Nathan Staff, M.D., Ph.D., talks with a reporter about Mayo's clinical trial using stem cells created from a person's own fat to treat ALS.

Seventy-five years ago, Lou Gehrig told New York Yankee fans that he'd been given a "bad break" but still considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth" having had the chance to play ball for 17 years, enjoy the support of fans, and play next to and for some of baseball's greats. And if you enjoyed the national pastime on our nation's birthday last week, you likely were treated to some version of a Lou Gehrig tribute. Gehrig, you may recall, was diagnosed at Mayo Clinic in 1939, just two weeks before giving his famous speech.

A cure for Gehrig's eponymous disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, has proved elusive, but researchers continue to search for some sort of treatment. Linda Light of New Brighton, Minnesota, tells KARE-11 TV she's hoping the latest ALS research efforts at Mayo Clinic might knock it out of the park. (Well, in so many words.)

Linda was diagnosed with ALS last September. "We were devastated," she says. Her symptoms began with her speech, which moved from "smooth and quick" to "slow and slurred." Three months ago, Linda enrolled in a clinical trial at Mayo Clinic in which researchers are creating cells from a patient's own fat, which they hope will "become protective of neuromuscular function" when injected into spinal fluid. "We're hopeful that the stem cells will provide a protection for the neurons that remain in the spinal cord and the brain, and hopefully slow down the disease and prolong lifespan," Mayo neurologist Nathan Staff, M.D, Ph.D., tells KARE-11.

The "fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells" are modified in the laboratory and "delivered through a spinal tap into the fluid around the patient's nervous system to promote neuron survival," says Anthony Windebank, M.D., deputy director for discovery in Mayo's Center for Regenerative Medicine. The hope is that this will promote the survival of nerve cells and slow down or stop the progression of ALS. "If we can halt an ALS patient's loss of cells at 20 to 30 percent, that person's function would be well-preserved," he says.

Linda Light tells KARE-11 that she's got an awful lot to live for -- she's particularly fond of spending time with her grandchildren -- and that she hopes to "gain some time." But if the clinical trial doesn't benefit her, she tells the station she hopes it will at least "get experts one step closer to helping her children's and grandchildren's generations."

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Tags: ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Center for Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Anthony Windebank, Dr. Nathan Staff, Lou Gehrig, research, Research News

Three years ago I lost my brother to ALS. He had just turned 50 and the disease was very agressive and he died 18 months following diagnosis. This year I lost my youngest brother, at 50, to MS. Our family seems to be heading down a difficult path. Is there any evidence these can be inherited conditions?


Karen, I’m very sorry to hear that. There’s more information on ALS and lots of links to resources on the page below, including statements that “ALS is inherited in 5 to 10 percent of cases” and “researchers are studying several possible causes.”
Here’s some information about the causes of MS.

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