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Researchers tackle 'orphan disease' with NFL help

March 18, 2009

KALAMAZOO--A debilitating orphan disease, a promising genomic research initiative, a Michigan life science startup, a nationally known medical center and a sympathetic Pittsburgh Steeler will all be part of the mix this weekend in Nashville, Tenn., when a gala fund-raising event is held to raise money for life-saving research.

Cornerback Fernando Bryant of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers will host "Miracles for MSA," a charity event set for Friday, March 20, in Nashville at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. The event was created to generate awareness and raise funds that will enable researchers at Vanderbilt and Western Michigan universities to help those suffering from multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder, commonly called MSA. Bryant, chairman of the 25 Sports Foundation and a former Detroit Lion, became aware of MSA when the wife of his high school football coach was diagnosed with the disorder.

Called an "orphan disease" because only a small percentage of the population suffers from the condition and its treatment is not a high priority for either federal agencies or pharmaceutical companies, MSA afflicts about 100,000 people. It is associated with the degeneration of nerve cells in specific areas of the brain. This cell degeneration causes problems with movement, balance and automatic functions of the body, such as blood pressure. The cause of MSA is unknown and no specific risk factors have yet been identified. About 55 percent of cases are among males, typical age of onset is mid- to late-50s, and the condition is extremely debilitating.

Dr. Charles Ide, WMU's Gwen Frostic Professor of Environmental Biology and director of the University's Environmental Institute, has been using gene expression techniques to study MSA and is leading the work at WMU. Recent research by Ide and his colleagues utilized state-of-the-art genomics technologies to characterize how gene expression is different in post-mortem brain tissues of MSA patients compared to people without neurological disease. Promising results from that work led WMU and Vanderbilt researchers and physicians to join forces to launch a pilot study, using blood cells from living patients. They hope the new work will help them understand the biological mechanisms that trigger MSA and such diseases as Parkinson's and provide the basis for an early diagnosis tool.

"The MSA project is the Holy Grail for our Environmental Institute genomics facility," says Ide, whose work has focused on applying genomic-based methods to a variety of human health problems related to the ecosystem and other factors. "We're trying to help people who suffer debilitation equivalent to that seen in the worst neurological diseases and who retain full understanding of what is happening to them."

The money raised through Miracles for MSA will fund detailed analysis of blood samples from patients at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Directing pilot project research activities at Vanderbilt is Dr. David Robertson, the Elton Yates Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology and Neurology and director of the Clinical Research Center at the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. He is internationally known for his work with MSA patients.

The blood samples from the Vanderbilt patients will be analyzed by Genemarkers LLC, a Kalamazoo life sciences startup affiliated with WMU. The results will be analyzed by Ide and his team as well as Robertson and his Vanderbilt team and scientists at Genemarkers. Ide and Dr. Anna Langerveld, CEO of Genmarkers, say the work will explore the connection between MSA and similar conditions such as typical Parkinson's disease and Pure Autonomic Failure. They also may be able to explore and even pinpoint genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the diseases.

The March 20 Nashville event is being organized by Coach Bob Summers whose wife is being treated by Vanderbilt's Robertson. For more information about "Miracles for MSA" and to learn how to contribute, write to miraclesformsa@gmail.com. Charles Ide can be reached at charles.ide@wmich.edu or (269) 387-5951.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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