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Sleuths gain in helping damaged nerves.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As many of you may know. Brian Dickinson, former NCEW president and columnist for The Providence Journal Bulletin, is facing the challenge of a lifetime. In this column, which is reprinted by permission, Dickinson describes the battle and his hopes for the future. All of us at The Masthead wish him well.

I FIND MYSELF embarked on a trip that I would rather not have undertaken. It is a trip to the frontiers of medicine, a search for ways to understand the causes -- and the possible therapies -- for that mysterious family of diseases that attack people where they move and think: in the nervous system.

This is a large family of disorders, including as it does Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and any number of other ailments, most of them distinguished by nasty habit and effect. They tend to be unpredictable, irreversible and (so far) largely immune to treatment.

But medical science is stepping up its fight against these neurological wreckers, and experts say these efforts show exciting promise.

Exploring the mysteries of nerve science is a far cry from the current affairs that form this writer's usual diet. But my interest in this side of medicine was excited a couple of months ago when doctors diagnosed me as having a nerve disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS), widely known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The diagnosis stunned me, for I knew just enough about ALS to be scared. The disease, which afflicts perhaps 30,000 Americans, attacks nerve cells (neurons) in the brain and spinal cord, causing muscles to weaken and waste away. The cause of the disease remains unknown. Historically, it has been defined as degenerative, incurable and inevitably fatal.

In my own case to date, the right leg has weakened and I limp rather emphatically, walking with the aid of a cane to ward off the occasional risk of falls. There is almost no pain, however, and on most days I drive myself to work.

So much for setting the scene. What has given rise to considerable hope is news that ALS researchers are moving fast on several new drugs, drugs that in tests have shown promise in slowing or even halting the degeneration of those nerve cells, known as motor neurons, that control muscle movement.

Two years ago, a team of neurologists reported finding the gene believed to cause the inherited strain of ALS. In other laboratory tests, mice with the animal form of ALS showed better mobility after treatment with an experimental drug. Still other researchers have discovered that ALS patients lack a crucial brain molecule that helps soak up a powerful chemical called glutamate; when it accumulates to excessive levels between brain cells, motor neurons are believed to weaken and die.

Such minutiae, normally of only passing concern to the healthy, becomes of intense interest to one who finds himself ailing. When doctors told me in December that I might be able to take part in a nationwide study of a promising new ALS drug, I was greatly cheered. This test, involving about 700 ALS patients nationally, is being sponsored by a well-regarded biotechnology company, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals of Tarrytown, N.Y. Like a competitor,

Synergen Inc. of Boulder, Colo., Regeneron has synthesized a large protein molecule with the mind bending name of "ciliary neutrotrephic factor," or CNTF. If the Food and Drug Administration approves testing tiffs drug, as is shortly expected, I and my fellow guinea pigs will be receiving an injected dose every other day for the next nine months, perhaps longer.

I suppose I should be a bit spooked to contemplate taking shots full of fat protein molecules (and to foresee doing this every other day for months on end, at that). But I am not at all alarmed by the prospect. If anything, I find myself encouraged, challenged and even excited, in an odd way, to be taking part in a clinical trial of a new drug for ALS. Doctors tell me that the Regeneron drug is by far the most promising product yet devised for controlling the effects of ALS.

We shall test the accuracy of this prediction. But one thing already is sure in my mind: At a time when President Clinton is assailing the drug industry for excessive profits, it is encouraging to remember that drug companies are putting immense efforts into seeking products that could bring about life-saving breakthroughs. There are those of us who cannot help but admire their efforts.

Brian Dickinson is editorial columnist of The Providence Joural Bulletin.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Author:Dickinson, Brian
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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