Scientists in Taiwan are closer to finding a way to determine how the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) progresses, a researcher said on Tuesday.
Chen Jun-an (陳俊安), an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica, said that little is known about why people develop ALS, except that 10 percent of them have a family history of the disease.
Chen said that he and his research team have embarked on a study to find out how ALS — also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease — progresses and what kind of therapy can slow it.
They are conducting experiments on mice, which have shown that if a certain molecule can be restored by means of gene therapy, it can slow the progress of the disease, he said.
In ALS patients, motor neurons gradually break down and die, which means the brain has difficulty communicating with muscles. As a result, the muscles weaken and paralysis develops.
The researchers have identified a cluster of motor neurons that seem particularly vulnerable and are likely to be the first to break down, Chen said.
A decrease in the ribonucleic acid (RNA) count of a microRNA precursor family called miR-17-92 — an example of the small, non-coding genes that regulate gene expression — was found to be linked to degeneration in motor neurons, he said, citing the team’s research on mice.
The research found that an increase in miR-17-92 delays paralysis in mice with ALS, suggesting that the viability of the genes is important, Chen said.
Through gene therapy it might be possible to extend lifespans and improve mobility among people with ALS, he said, citing results in those areas in the research.
However, the team must study animal cells further before progressing to human cells and clinical trials, he said.
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Cell Stem Cell on May 30.
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