Wednesday, August 27, 2014

IceBucket The Blue Sky

The #ALSIceBucketChallenge has been nothing short of a miracle for patients and researchers. Internet memes are rather capricious, having a nearly random hit/miss ratio. That this became so huge is a stroke of incredible luck. The awareness, and resulting increase in donations, has been a huge windfall. This surge couldn't have come at a better time as researchers now have exquisite investigational tools not available even 5 years ago.

There is then the begged question, "Why did it take a patient and a tractor trailer full of luck to bring awareness to the public?" For decades there have been organizations claiming to represent ALS patients. Yet never has there been a sustained national awareness project executed. Patients were left largely on their own to create awareness. This is a question to which we as patients should demand an answer.

Nevertheless, the windfall is upon us. I believe that this boost in funding should be used to create a critical mass of awareness and outreach. As stated, Internet memes are capricious and subject to fading from the public memory with all the speed and ferocity with which it entered. This is the perfect time to keep the message sustained in the public view. Certainly the money to do so is now available.

Another question the ALS patient community should be asking is how much of the massively increased donations are going to be actually used for research, and in what programs. Some donations are going directly to research facilities but the bulk of them are not. Is that bulk to be hoarded and doled out in tiny slices and without focus to a wide variety of basic research projects, never giving any sufficient amounts to fully complete the work? Or will a significant effort be launched which will fund focused work on high-value pathways, including helping fund clinical trials in humans (there are a few promising treatments languishing for lack of funding to pay clinics to conduct Phase 2-3 trials).

This is the time for organizations representing the ALS patient community to step up. The shelf-life of popular public awareness is notoriously short. We need to take this opportunity to create a program of sustained awareness and lobbying for research funding, along with a focused research effort encompassing basic research through to human trials. It is also the time for all research and advocacy organizations to come together as a united front in order to make ALS nothing more than an unpleasant memory.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Eye Caramba!

I would like to urge all of my readers to immediately visit this Kickstarter project. So much better than potato salad, this device is a revolutionary step forward in personal portable Speech Generating Device (SGD) technology. It's wearable and allows eye contact with your conversation partner while using eyegaze.



The keyboard and other controls are displayed right before your eyes. The generated voice comes from the glasses so it appears to come from you, creating a more natural conversation experience. You're outside in bright sunlight? No problem! The glasses come with pop-on shades and because the eye-tracking camera is inside, it's shielded from solar infrared glare. And best of all, the control unit is basically an Android-powered smart phone. This means superior portability and an open-source platform for future app development!

The man behind this innovation, Ivo Vieira, has a history of successful optical technology in satellites (his original company, Luso-Space, has a very exciting mission nearing launch to measure gravity waves with orbiting lasers). His father has ALS and is very disappointed with current eyegaze technology. Furthermore, we have met personally and I am very impressed not only with his development, but with his future plans to increase quality while decreasing costs. I am proud to recommend this project to you all. Please support this Kickstarter and help get the Eyespeak into commercial production ASAP.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Of Mice And Me

As many of my readers know, about two years ago I came across a study investigating a novel molecule for the treatment of Alzheimer's. The molecule, J147, is a synthetic derivative of curcumin. Curcumin and other similar molecules have long been under study for neurodegenerative diseases. Unfortunately curcuminoids have rather poor bioavailability, meaning they are quickly excreted from the body and require high amounts to have a therapeutic value. Like curcumin, J147 is "orally available" (meaning it is introduced to the body by eating it) but is more than 100X as potent. This means a much smaller quantity is necessary for therapeutic effect. So far, we haven't found a toxic dose of J147. Work on toxicity is ongoing.

In the Alzheimer's study J147 had remarkable results in that model. The pathways acted upon were quite relevant to ALS. These include potent antioxidant effects, significant reduction of microglia activation and migration, and reduction of heat-shock protein expression which indicates a shift back toward cellular homeostasis. More recent data (unpublished) indicates an effect in reducing astrocyte activation, which is sufficient to rapidly kill even healthy motor neurons.

Unfortunately, because J147 is pleiotropic, pharmaceutical companies weren't interested. The current research paradigm is to focus on single molecular targets. For diseases with a single mechanisms, that's a fine method of attack. But ALS has quite a few things going on simultaneously. All prior single-target treatments have failed and the current growing opinion is that successful treatment would require a cocktail of drugs. Better to have a single pleiotropic substance than a mixture of chemicals with uncertain interactions.

In April, 2013, I created SciOpen Research Group in order to have an entity capable of negotiating research and licensing of novel molecules with the promise of treatment of ALS. J147 is our first project. In the early summer of 2013, SRG applied to Prize4Life for access to their colony of G93A transgenic research mice at Jackson Laboratories. Our research proposal for J147 was accepted and we were given granted sufficient animal numbers to properly conduct our study. We received the mice and started the experiment at the end of January.

We are very excited to have commenced our first research program and demonstrate that guerrilla biotechs can perform quality science. To that end, we created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to obtain funding for the next step of the experiment - microscopic tissue examination. This will tell us exactly what J147 did to help the motor neurons in the mice.

Please donate if you can. All donations are tax-deductible. If you cannot donate please spread word about SRG and our need for funding this new and exciting research.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pot Luck

An article appeared on social media about a group of parents using cannabidiol (CBD) for their children's epilepsy. Unlike the usual reports of people using marijuana and subjectively reporting "improvements", this group of patient advocates went and filed an Investigational New Drug (IND) with the FDA. Don't get me wrong - I support the medical (and recreational) use of marijuana, but heretofore the real scientific data available has been extremely thin. Rather than going on Silk Road to get a bunch of medicine then post wonderful stories on social media, this group created a real clinical trial in cooperation with FDA and a company named GW Pharmaceuticals which supplied a pure oil formulation of CBD. This is a very important development in patient-driven access to investigational drugs. Far better than the usual DIY projects (even the handful started by yours truly), this type of project can deliver real, verifiable, and scientifically-accepted results.

The body contains cannabinoid receptors both in the CNS and periphery. The most well-known cannabinoid ligand is THC (a CB1 agonist) which is responsible for the euphoric psychoactive effect in marijuana. Both natural and synthetic cannabinoids long been of interest in treating disease. What's of most interest in medicine are the anti-inflammatory effects of CB2 agonists such as cannabidiol or CBD. Endogenous CB2 receptors are upregulated in the spinal cords of SOD1 transgenic mice. CBD agonists show symptomatic improvement in several inflammatory diseases. There is evidence that CB2 receptors are upregulated in response to the inflammatory microglial activation in ALS. Several studies have shown that CB2 agonists have a beneficial effect in transgenic SOD1 mice. This data shows that more work, perhaps in in human patients, is warranted.

Alternative medicine is very popular in the ALS Community because, frankly, there is nothing currently available proven to extend the lives of PALS. Unfortunately most experiments are done without adequate objective observation and recording of data. Instead all that is reported are vague descriptions of improvement, skewing any rational perception of the particular alternative medicine. This causes more desperate patients to attempt the alternative with the same lack of adequate reporting.

This post, however, is not about calling for an IND for CBD (which would nevertheless be a good idea). The point here is to spotlight that a group of patients and/or advocates got together to do an experiment outside of an institutional clinical trial. They led the way and did it themselves while preserving the valuable objective data. They created their own hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. This is the ultimate expression of DIY Medicine, done properly and openly. Any other method is a waste of time, money, and health.

There is actually much more opportunity than just experiments with speculative alternative medicine. Hope exists for the approximately 60% of living PALS who don't qualify for clinical trials. That hope is the FDA Expanded Access Program (EAP). PALS should request EAPs for those investigational treatments which have passed the Phase 2 endpoint requirements of safety and suggested efficacy. Furthermore, they should support efforts to bring EAPs to the ALS Community. Living, even for the healthy, requires hope. We, the ALS Community, like everything else we have accomplished, must create our own hope by being pioneers and responsible citizen scientists.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Carpe Fragments

In the developing embryo, motor neurons develop and nearly half preferentially die prior to birth (Henderson, et al., 1997, "Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF/SF) is a muscle-derived survival factor for a subpopulation of embryonic motoneurons"). As shown in Forger, et al., 2001 ("Blockade of Endogenous Neurotrophic Factors Prevents the Androgenic Rescue of Rat Spinal Motoneurons"), loss of muscular targets also leads to post-natal motor neuron degeneration. Post-natal mice engineered to have degenerated muscle spindles exhibit ataxia and resting tremors, indicating a decrease in proprioception due to loss of sensory-motor synapses (Frank, et al., 2002, "Muscle Spindle-Derived Neurotrophin 3 Regulates Synaptic Connectivity between Muscle Sensory and Motor Neurons").

One interesting factor seems to suggest a link with testosterone in preserving motor neurons, which could be a possible explanation for the statistically higher numbers of men affected in middle-age or above, and that of women in post-menopause, when hormone levels experience radical shift. Indeed, Cilliary Neurotrophic Factor, a potent motor neuron trophic factor, is regulated by gonadal hormones (Forger, et al., 1998, "Ciliary Neurotrophic Factor Receptor in Spinal Motoneurons is Regulated by Gonadal Hormones").

Leaving aside the question of hormone levels, there is much evidence that muscle-derived neurotrophic factors are necessary for the health and survival of the motor neurons. One in particular, Motoneuronotrophic Factor 1 (MNTF1), appears essential to this critical process. Experiments in Wobbler mice show that motor neuron disease increases as MNTF1 levels decrease ( MNTF1 was first described in the early 90s, and the human form was successfully cloned as an artificial protein. Various fragments were extracted and shown to have neurotrophic effect.

Two overlapping domains of a 33 amino acid fragment of MNTF1, dubbed the Fred and Wilma domains, are sufficient to stimulate motor neuroprotection in a manner similar to the whole 33 amino acid MNTF1 fragment. The Fred domain is sufficient to direct selective reinnervation of muscle targets by motor neurons in vivo in a manner similar to the 33 amino acid MNTF1 fragment. A recombinant protein containing the Fred domain maintained motoneuron viability, increased neurite outgrowth, reduced motoneuron cell death/apoptosis and supported the growth and spreading of motoneurons into giant, active neurons with extended growth cone-containing axons.

For those curious about the amino acids in each domain, please refer to the image below:

From the above it is quite possible that at least some forms of ALS are caused by a sort of a muscular dystrophy (not to be confused with the distinct condition by that name). It therefore stands to reason that there is reason for hope that some will benefit. The standard caveat of basic and preclinical research often not translating to human trials obviously applies. However, we are entering an exciting time where extremely potent shots are being taken at more fundamental aspects of ALS. One or a combination seem likely to have the effect we have been waiting for.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Jumping Joan!

Only Two Days Until The Jump!

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Many Thanks To Those Who Have Donated!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Precision Stem Cell

The following should not be taken as a recommendation (or warning) regarding Precision Stem Cell. However, that facility was recently rendered an injustice which requires correction.

On March 19, 2013, ALS Worldwide (ALSWW) published a report on the procedure carried out by Dr. Jason Williams at Precision Stem Cell in Gulf Shores, Alabama (PSC). The report was particularly scathing. However, it was replete with inaccuracies. I would like to contrast points from the ALSWW report with facts reported to me from a number of independent sources which include Dr. Williams, persons who have visited his clinic, and patients treated by Dr. Williams in the subject stem cell procedure. To begin with, I will briefly explain the theoretical underpinnings of the procedure Dr. Williams performed, as well as his motivation for doing something outside of his original medical training.

Dr. Williams explains his history, procedure, rationale, and plans for development in a recently-released video. He had been doing mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) extraction and delivery into joints for a time, a somewhat routine procedure done in many clinics as a sports rehabilitation therapy. A friend, Frank Orgel, approached him about trying the procedure to treat his own ALS. Dr. Williams was initially skeptical but after online literature research learned of studies done using this technique in laboratory settings. Note that the link here is not necessarily the one used by Dr. Williams. The reader can search PubMed using the terms "autologous stem cells amyotrophic mesenchymal" and be presented with results which are representative of the applicable published studies.

Selegiline (Anipryl, L-deprenyl, Eldepryl, Emsam, Zelapar) is a drug used for the treatment of early-stage Parkinson's disease, depression and senile dementia. Dr. Williams found published studies suggesting that selegiline treatment of MSCs was sufficient to trans-differentiate them toward a neural lineage. Dr. Williams extracts the MSCs via machines made exactly for the purpose of extraction of adipose (fat) tissue and real-time separation of MSCs from the adipose tissue. The extraction and separation process is all done in a sterile closed system. The MSCs are then bathed in selegiline solution created by from powder mixed with sterile saline using a professional compounding protocol. After treatment, the cells are then injected into the spine via lumbar puncture The idea is that the treated cells are a mixture of MSCs and neural-lineage cells which then quell the inflammatory aspect of ALS and provide neurotrophic factors. The extent and duration of benefit is presumed based on severity of progression (ie patients with a slower, less aggressive, progression would experience more benefit and of a longer duration).

TCA Cellular of Louisiana had been previously conducting a clinical trial using intrathecal delivery of MSCs to treat ALS until they were shut down for improperly administering the procedure outside of trial (including allogenic products delivered to some patients). Currently, The Mayo Clinic is conducting a similar trial. Clearly there is scientific rationale for investigating this procedure as a treatment for ALS. While Dr. Williams started with the cart before the horse, if you will, he has matured his operation into a true investigative research program. He is partnering with accredited researchers and is forming a company specifically to handle the research program. Together they are working on a genetic modification of the MSCs to more abundantly deliver anti-inflammatory and neurotrophic factors as well as concurrent delivery of the treatment vehicle to the patient cells to help the host cells defend themselves from disease process. This can be likened to the Brainstorm product which nearly everyone is excited about.

1. Precision Stem Cell is conducting a trial
As discussed above, Dr. Williams never claimed that his procedure was a clinical trial. He expanded his current practice of treating joint damage to ALS by request of a friend seeking the possibility of relief via MSC injection. Labeling the procedure as a "trial" and then remarking that there is no rigorous data collection is disingenuous at best. Further, discussion of pricing in the report appears deliberately worded to taint Dr. Williams as a con artist of the sort endemic in the world of life-threatening diseases. Dr. Williams is indeed now planning a trial, in preparation for which he has ceased treating patients, but none of the previous treatments were ever represented as a trial. Dr. Williams had been planning to transition to a trial many months prior to the ALSWW visit.

2. Dr. Williams has no credentials as a neurologist/plastic surgeon
This is true. However, neither of these qualifications are necessary to perform the subject procedure. Mechanically it is almost no different from the joint therapy he has been performing for years. Injection into the spine does carry extra risk. However, nurses without neurology credentials routinely administer spinal taps and injection of spinal block anesthesia daily around the United States, and without benefit of the imaging equipment employed by Dr. Williams. Insofar as the liposuction, Dr. Williams is certified in the use of that equipment since 2010 and can produce a copy of such certificate upon demand.

3. Positive effects lasted only 1-4 days
While the positive effects noted by some patients could indeed merely be placebo effect (impossible to determine either way absent double-blind trial), how Mr. Byer makes this claim is a puzzle. He never contacted any of the patients referred to him by Dr. Williams. The "days" time estimate Mr. Byer repeated in the ALSWW report appears to have come from a public post from a person on the ALSTDI forum. That person denies having been contacted by Mr. Byer.

4. The clinic is a poorly-equipped "stem cell facility"
Leaving aside a discussion of exactly what a "stem cell facility" is, PSC is a radiological facility. No surgical procedures are performed. The equipment used to extract, manipulate, and reintroduce the MSCs are all routine equipment useful in many procedures involving filtering and extraction of select fluids/tissue. The protocol for harvesting MSCs has been well-documented for decades. The liposuction and extraction are done with machines built exactly for those tasks in a closed system which guarantees sterility. The mention of the equipment not being FDA-approved for extracting MSCs is a total red herring apparently intended to taint the reader's opinion of PSC.

5. Sterile procedures are not followed - infection risk
Sterile procedures are indeed not followed. The reason for this is that they are unnecessary. The entire movement of cells is done via hypodermics, transferring from the patient from one sealed sterile container to another throughout the entire process and back to the patient. Alcohol swab wipe on external surfaces prior to injection is all that is necessary. There is no open surgery requiring a sterile environment. Despite the claim in the ALSWW report, surgical drapes are indeed used during liposuction. Talking about the radiology suite as an "OR" is another disingenuous attempt to discredit PSC. The table talked about is a standard flouroscopy table so Dr. Williams can use imaging guidance for his procedure. Photographs reveal the table to be very clean and in fine shape. Since patients are not under general anesthesia or sedation, the risk of "easily falling off" is a function of zero.

6. Patients have retracted statements of benefit
This claim is a mystery because the patients to whom Dr. Williams referred Mr. Byer deny having been contacted. The patient Mr. Byer apparently used in this example denies having been contacted by Mr. Byer. Further, he maintains his original statement.

7. Williams uses a 0.8 micron filter making MSC harvest impossible
Dr. Williams uses an 80 micron filter. It is possible that Mr. Byer was observing another filter type or misread the label. Dr. Williams admits the possibility of having handed Mr. Byer a 0.8 micron filter by accident. Nevertheless, this question could have been resolved by email or phone call prior to publication.

8. The selegiline mixture is unsanitary
The selegiline is not, as claimed in the ALSWW report, ground in a mortar and pestle at PSC. The selegiline solution used for bathing the MSCs is made with sterile saline (not distilled water) under the guidance and protocol of David Rothbardt, a registered compounding pharmacist. According to Dr. Williams, neither Mr. Byer nor his medical adviser Dr. Hematti ever observed compounding of selegiline at PSC. Further, the selegiline is removed via rinse after bathing period and prior to reintroduction to the patient.

9. The PSC facility has no vapor lock system
Perhaps Mr. Byer has confused PSC with a biohazard facility? This allegation makes no sense and appears another in a long string of comments included to confuse the uninformed and unwary.

As demonstrated above, the report by ALSWW is full of inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and diversions from truth. The motivations for Mr. Byer to publish that report are beyond the scope of this blog post. The facts are that PSC is a clinic offering a treatment used by many clinics for joint rehabilitation. The equipment and techniques are common and well-documented. The facility is clean and the procedure is carried out under appropriately-sterile conditions. The applicability of this treatment to ALS is unknown, although the study data available is compelling enough for The Mayo Clinic to run a clinical trial.

There are some questions regarding the treatment provided by Dr. Williams. The dosages administered are estimates based on instrument capacity rather than actual flow cytometry count. The data regarding selegiline needs further independent verification. Without evaluation, it's impossible to know how complete is the presumed process of trans-differentiation of MSCs to neural lineage. The efficacy of either straight or selegiline-treated MSC intrathecal injection is still an open question.

However, one thing is clear: PSC did not deserve such a baseless derogatory review from ALSWW.