Research at the ALS Center of Excellence

The Problem

ALS patient brain tissue (top) and cell differentiation of that tissue (bottom)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) involves degeneration of motor neurons that control muscles, causing muscle wasting and loss of voluntary muscle control. ALS eventually leads to an inability to breathe and ultimately death. ALS occurs in approximately 1 to 4 per 100,000 individuals, and it is estimated that over 30,000 Americans are living with ALS. Each year 6,400 people are diagnosed in the U.S.

  • There is no cure for ALS and the disease is fatal.
  • Average ALS survival is 2 to 4 years after diagnosis.
  • There are two types of ALS: around 90% of ALS cases are not inherited, termed sporadic ALS, while 10% are inherited, called familial ALS.
  • Gene mutations linked to ALS have been identified in 70% of patients with familial ALS.
  • The cause and mechanism of ALS remain unknown in most cases.
  • The rate of ALS is higher in the Midwest than in other parts of the country. 

“The Midwest has the highest prevalence of ALS of any part of the United States, which has really been a driving force for our research. There is certainly some genetic risk, but there also is clearly something in our environment in the Midwest that’s involved.”

Dr. Eva Feldman | Detroit Free Press
  • We were the first to be approved for a clinical trial for intraspinal transplantation (injection) of stem cells into the spinal cord of ALS patients.
  • The immune system plays an important role in ALS progression, especially overactive natural killer (NK) cells. In healthy patients, NK cells clear diseased or dying cells, but in ALS patients they eventually attack motor neurons as they become sick. READ THE STUDY
  • We identified sex-dependent differences in the immune system in ALS, which could have important clinical implications.
  • We received the patent to repurpose an already FDA-approved drug — the immunosuppressant known as tofacitinib — for ALS patients.
  • There is a link between the microbiome (the microbes in the gut) and ALS progression. Changes in gut bacteria preceded an altered immune system in ALS mouse models. READ THE STUDY
  • In Michigan, ALS patients had higher levels of environmental toxins (legacy pesticides, industrial chemicals, flame retardants) in their blood, leading us to believe that the exposome (environmental and occupational exposures) may affect ALS onset and progression. READ THE STUDY
  • Exposure to specific metals (e.g., chromium, manganese, nickel) in early life correlates with ALS risk.