ALS is often called Lou Gehrig's disease, but the face of ALS today is Stephen Hawking. He's the wheelchair-bound British astrophysicist who has lived with the crippling disease for almost 50 years.
He got married, had children, and rose to international fame as a professor at Cambridge after his diagnosis. His web site, http://hawking.org.uk, chronicles the life of this remarkable man. My favorite part is the photo: he can still smile.
The life expectancy for most ALS patients is less than 5 years. What makes Hawking so different? Age at diagnosis, support from family and friends, personal drive, and Hawking's rich intellectual life are all possible factors.
Researchers are trying to identify drugs to slow or even stop the progression of ALS. A group at Harvard Medical School has identified a gene that shows loss-of-function mutations in ALS patients. This opens the possibility of testing drugs on cell cultures that contain the target gene.
Enter the team that cloned Dolly the sheep. This group in Edinburgh, UK, discovered that an extract of embryonic stem cells activates genes for cell division in adult cells. They hope to develop the technology to take a few cells from a patient and efficiently produce an unlimited supply of genetically identical cells for research.
Stephen Hawking has spent the last 50 years studying the mysteries of physics and astronomy. There is hope that within our lifetime medical research will give all ALS patients the prospect of 50 years before the disease becomes their biggest problem.
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