A Brain Repair Centre Knowledge Translation (BRC-KT) grant will help Dalhousie researcher Dr. Ying Zhang and her collaborator, Dr. Vic Rafuse, take the next big step in their efforts to develop an in vitro system for rapidly screening potential treatments for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that destroys motor neurons, which are the nerve cells in the spinal cord that allow us to initiate and control movement. But as Dalhousie professor Dr. Rafuse and his team have discovered, saving the motor neurons is not enough to save the ability to use the muscles—the synapses that relay nervous impulses from the motor neurons to the muscles must also be preserved.

This finding points to a new treatment strategy for ALS—preserving muscle function by saving synapses.

It also led Dr. Rafuse and his team to develop a new cell-culture model of ALS. This combines motor neurons and muscle cells in a dish—or, in vitro—where they form synaptic connections that can be tested by stimulating the neurons with flourescent light. He and Dr. Zhang are working together to develop this new model into a high-speed drug-screening technology.

“We now have a very effective in vitro model that tells us whether or not a drug is able to preserve the synaptic connections between motor neurons and muscle cells,” says project lead Dr. Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Sciences at Dalhousie Medical School. “What we need next is a method to quantify the strength of the synaptic connection and a robotic system to run the tests quickly and efficiently.”

That’s where the BCR-KT grant comes in.

“We are at a crucial phase of this work, where we are making a transition from scientific discovery to applied technology,” notes Dr. Zhang. “To make this transition, we need a technician to fine tune the in vitro model and an engineer to develop the devices and software to turn the model into a high-throughput drug screening technology.”

The researchers already have an industrial partner who is eager to develop this technology with them, once they have completed the next round of studies with support from the BRC-KT grant.

“It’s very exciting to see our work moving so close to real-world application,” says Dr. Zhang. “This drug-screening model offers a rapid and inexpensive alternative to animal models in the early stages of drug development, so that researchers around the world can cast a much wider net in their search for treatments—not just for ALS, but for spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders.”

Stay tuned for more stories featuring the important work of our Brain Repair Centre researchers.


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