Here’s a Exact Way That a Ice Bucket Challenge Helped ALS Research

September 17, 2015 - als

Here's a Exact Way That a Ice Bucket Challenge Helped ALS Research

Last year’s hugely renouned “ice bucket challenge” saw celebrities pouring buckets of ice H2O over their heads to assistance quarrel Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). Skeptics discharged it as small “slacktivism,” yet researchers told us that a income led directly to a systematic breakthrough. Can slacktivism indeed work?

Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristof wrote a rather gloating Op-Ed in a New York Times, swelling during a critique that such campaigns are mostly ineffectual and meaningless. After all, some 17 million people participated in a challenge, and the ALS Association claims it lifted $115 million in 6 weeks for a cause. Money doesn’t meant systematic discoveries follow, however.

But in early August, researchers during Johns Hopkins University announced a potential breakthrough therapy for ALS. JHU’s Philip Wong’s told a press that “The appropriation [from a ice bucket challenge] positively facilitated a formula we obtained.” That seemed to support Kristof’s claim, yet could it unequivocally be that simple? We wanted to know more.


First, usually what is this large breakthrough that appeared in a biography Science? It centers on a sold protein, TDP-43, that is famous to form clumps inside a mind cells of roughly all people with ALS (97%), as good as in 45% of those pang from dementia. But a accurate duty of this protein, or usually what effects that clumping had, weren’t known.

The JHU researchers figured out that in healthy people, TDP-43 protects cells by ensuring that inadequate RNA segments aren’t enclosed in a “blueprint” for production other proteins. (As Francis Crick pithily observed: “DNA creates RNA, RNA creates proteins, and proteins make us.”) But when those clumps form, a TDP-43 no longer functions properly. It’s as if a protein isn’t benefaction during all and a cells can’t examination a “blueprint.” And yet that protection, those mind cells start to die.

The JHU organisation even managed to deliver failing cells by plugging in a different, custom-designed protein to impersonate a duty of a poor TDP-43. And it worked! The shop-worn cells returned to normal. “We can for a unequivocally initial time make these zombie-like cells where they don’t have any TDP-43 yet they survive,” lead author Jonathan Ling told Gizmodo. “No one has ever shown that.” So there is now a trail brazen toward building an effective gene therapy to fight ALS.

This is unequivocally sparkling stuff. But can we unequivocally indicate to a approach cause-and-effect couple between this new outcome and a supports lifted by a ice bucket challenge? The answer is a bit some-more nuanced than that.

Breakthroughs don’t occur in a vacuum, notwithstanding what a headlines would have we believe. There are months, years, infrequently decades of toiling in shade before that large eureka! impulse arrives. JHU’s investigate module on TDP-43 was already good underway before a lab perceived additional appropriation from a ice bucket challenge. It was a timing of a supports that seems to have finished a difference, according to Wong’s statements to a press.

Ling reliable to Gizmodo that a extend a lab perceived from a ALS Association “was a large assistance towards a finish of a study. It was good to have that income come in during that time.” They had collected adequate information to aver a biography examination routine for their breeze paper, yet that takes several months. And reviewers fundamentally wish some-more experiments to be finished before green-lighting a paper for publication, that takes money.

Ling concurred that they competence have managed to lift a few strings and get some-more appropriation yet a challenge, yet there was no pledge of success, generally given copiousness of scientists were doubtful about their hypothesis. So many before work had been finished on this sold protein; certainly if there was anything poignant there, a logic went, someone else would have found it by now. “This is a problem with science,” pronounced Ling. “Once people get set in their thinking, a responsibility is on you” to infer otherwise.

The record used in this sold examination is called RNA-seq (sequencing), that speeds adult a routine of sequencing genetic information. But it is also ridiculously costly — and it still takes several months to routine samples since there are prolonged watchful lists to use these singular multimillion dollar machines. “It’s a outrageous risk to put all of your eggs into one basket,” Ling said. “If we try to rivet in a high risk, high prerogative experiment, and it doesn’t finish adult working, afterwards you’re out of income to do a work you’re ostensible to do.”

So a ALS supports competence not have led directly to this new healing strategy, yet that income accelerated a lab’s swell by permitting them to do a pricey examination that they competence differently not have been means to afford. Ling estimates it would have taken another dual to 3 years during slightest yet it. That’s not unequivocally prolonged in a universe of systematic research, yet it is an perpetuity to someone pang from ALS, that kills many patients within dual to 5 years. So in that sense, we can call a ice bucket plea a success.

Exciting yet this initial outcome competence be, it is not a enchanting “cure” for ALS — or even a entirely grown therapy. The pivotal examination was finished on lab-grown cells, not whole vital organisms. The subsequent step for a JHU organisation is to exam their engineer protein that mimics TDP-43 on mice. If that works, it contingency afterwards be tested on humans. The good news is that TDP-43 functions a same in both mice and humans — indeed, in flattering many each higher-order organism, according to Ling. It usually does a thing in opposite locations.

“Just since we see it in 97% of patients, we still don’t know either it’s causing a illness or if it’s merely a sign of a disease,” Ling said. “What we do know is that if we mislay [TDP-43] from a neuron, that neuron will die. We competence usually be negligence things down.” The usually approach to know for certain is to control a clinical trial. And clinical trials are expensive.

Hmmm. It competence be time to mangle out a ice buckets again.


Ling, Jonathan P. et al. (2015) “TDP-43 hang-up of nonconserved mysterious exons is compromised in ALS-FTD,” Science 349(6248): 650-655.

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