MDA awarded a research grant totaling $330,000 to Stanley H. Appel, chair of the department of neurology at the Methodist Neurological Institute (MNI) in Houston, to study the protective effects of a specific class of immune system cells in ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease).
Appel, a longtime MDA adviser and director of the MDA/ALS center at MNI, will look at T cells, observed in people with ALS as well as in mouse models of the disease, and known to be involved in protecting motor neurons (nerve cells that activate muscles).
Appel's lab previously has documented that T cells can protect neurons in a mouse model of ALS, at least in part by enhancing the neuroprotective functions of another type of immune system cell called microglia. When activated, these cells can produce helpful proteins, but they also can cause dangerous inflammation.
Finding ways to protect motor neurons is a key goal in the development of ALS therapeutics, and Appel's group is working to understand the interaction among other cells in the immune system responsible for prompting T cells to protect neurons.
Project plans include the transplantation of various T-cell types into ALS research mouse models in order to determine which of the cells are most helpful to neurons. A greater understanding of this T-cell population and its associated molecular signals may lead to therapeutics based on increasing the numbers and effectiveness of these cells to help protect neurons in people with ALS.
"MDA has been a critical source of support throughout the development of our immunological studies in ALS," Appel said. "It's permitted us to assemble a team of scientists focused on the neuroinflammatory processes in ALS, and to substantiate the importance of protective immunomodulation in ALS."
Funding for this MDA grant began August 1, 2010.