Brain Institute to include ALS research center within next five years

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Staff Writer

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Pitt plans to open a new center dedicated to researching treatments and cures for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the University announced Thursday. 

In 2011, Neil Alexander, an O’Hara Township native, was diagnosed with ALS. On Thursday, he and his wife, Suzanne Alexander, agreed to raise $2.5 million over five years to go toward the fund of the Live Like Lou Center for ALS Research, which will be part of Pitt’s year-old Brain Institute. The University will match this donation.

ALS first became a widely known disease in 1939 when baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with and later died from the disease. Recently, ALS has come back into the spotlight with the virality of the Ice Bucket Challenge last summer, a method people used to spread awareness about the disease and raise money for research.

“It is a great honor to have this opportunity to combine the University’s vast experience and resources in neuroscience with the Alexanders’ commitment and passion,” said Arthur Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine, in a statement. “Like them, we want to galvanize our scientists to pursue transformative avenues of research to find treatments — and, better yet, a cure — for this devastating disease.” 

The partners plan to raise the $10 million required to create the center in the next five years. 

The center will work to find treatments and a cure for the disease, as well as helping those already diagnosed with it, according to the press release. 

The center outlined six main goals to kickstart the projects, including hiring an expert in the neurobiology of ALS, developing a non-human primate model of the disease, creating a prototypical house model to test new technologies, using technology to increase patient independence, supporting clinical trials that may slow the disease’s progression and awarding innovator grants to explore new approaches. 

The center will be a part of Pitt’s Brain Institute. The University has a history of progressive medical research and discoveries. Among others, the Brain Institute is credited with fostering the research behind the polio vaccine, the Gamma Knife ­­— used for minimally invasive brain surgery — and a way to detect Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages. 

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in the press release that he was honored to be a part of this project. 

“[The Alexanders’] dedication to helping others with this debilitating disease is inspirational. We are looking forward to putting the resources and expertise of the University to work on this task, and we are honored that they have chosen the University of Pittsburgh as the site for this center,” Gallagher said. 

The disease causes progressive paralysis and makes it difficult for the patient to breathe or swallow. Only 10 percent of patients survive 10 years after diagnosis, according to the release. Most die within two to five years of diagnosis. 

Currently, there are no effective treatments for ALS, but supporters of the Center are confident in future success.

“Treatments and cures are going to come through basic research, and that is what our Brain Institute is designed for,”  said Peter Strick, Thomas Detre professor, chair of neurobiology and scientific director of the Brain Institute, in the press release. 

Strick envisions a successful future for the center.

“The new center’s goals are bold,” Strick said. “We haven’t chosen easy targets.” 

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