Written by Loren Grush
A large degree of uncertainty still surrounds the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A devastating illness with no known cause or cure, ALS only has a handful of treatments, and upon diagnosis, life expectancy is typically only three to five years.
For the first time, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston (BWH) have identified a blood biomarker that could not only help to identify ALS earlier, but also help pave the way to new treatments that could significantly slow – or even stop – the progression of the deadly disease.
After conducting pre-clinical trials in mice genetically predisposed to develop ALS, the scientists discovered the secret lies in changes to the immune system and an increased production of white blood cells called monocytes. The animals’ spleens would start to exhibit proinflammatory qualities, producing a large influx of monocytes, which would then bombard the spinal cord – eventually getting into the brain.
ALS affects five out of every 100,000 people worldwide, typically those over the age of 50. According to the National Institute of Health, ALS is marked by the slow degeneration of muscle strength and control – making it difficult for people, over time, to perform simple tasks like taking steps or even swallowing.
Finding and controlling the monocytes
One of the main challenges for the scientists was being able to identify the monocytes after they entered the brain.
“There are really two cell types involved,” Dr. Howard Weiner, the director of the BWH Multiple Sclerosis Program and the study’s lead author, told FoxNews.com. “The macrophages or monocytes - these are cells that come from the [spleen] and go in to the brain. The microglia are already there in the brain and protect it from outside invaders. We discovered ways to distinguish between the two. Sometimes when [monocytes] come into the brain, you can’t tell the difference between [monocytes] and microglia. We found the difference and started to study them in the animal model.”