Motor neurone disease (MND) is, to say the least, dreadful. It also doesn’t help that the terminology neurologists use adds to the distress. West of the Atlantic, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) means MND but goes eastwards and it is only a subtype of MND. Thankfully, for most Americans at least, there is no confusion; it is simply Lou Gehrig disease.
MND however remains a conundrum for neurologists who are struggling to solve its puzzling riddles. MND researchers continue to toil and sweat, but their efforts are bearing fruits. Take for example the great strides that established the link between MND and the C9ORF72 gene. What are the promising prospects in the world of MND? Here are some.
Associations: Thiamine deficiency and Diabetes
Should we be on the lookout for thiamine deficiency in patients with MND? This question is prompted by an article in the JNNP which shows an unexpectedly high frequency of laboratory, but not clinical, thiamine deficiency. Titled Thiamine deficiency in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the paper reported thiamine deficiency in about 28% of subjects with MND. The authors did not impute any causal association, and there is nothing to suggest that replenishing the thiamine improved outcomes. It is still worth thinking about because people with MND, as the paper emphasised, are at risk of thiamine deficiency.
Another reported association, more difficult to fathom, is the one between MND and diabetes mellitus. The report in the European Journal of Neurology is titled Association between diabetes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in Sweden. Why am I sceptical?
Risk factor: Human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV K)
The cause for MND remains unknown. Risk factors however abound such as smoking and other environmental risk factors. You may now add human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV K) to that list. This is according to a recent paper in Science Translational Medicine titled Human endogenous retrovirus-K contributes to motor neuron disease. The authors report that HERV K is activated in some people with MND, and it is the envelope proteins that cause damage to tissues. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) think this is an important development, and it released a press statement titled Dormant viral genes may awaken to cause ALS. Scary! Is this important, or just another risk factor? Only time will tell.
Pathology: Neuromuscular junction inflammation
This sounds almost sacrilegious- the thought that inflammation may really play a role in MND. And at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), not the anterior horn cells. Well, some researchers are ready to commit blasphemy; publishing in Experimental Neurology, the authors showed evidence of inflammation in the muscles and NMJs of rat models of MND. They went further to show that injecting a growth factor called GDNF reduced this inflammation. Do I perceive a potential treatment pathway? Read all about it if you dare, its titled Macrophage-mediated inflammation and glial response in the skeletal muscle of a rat model of familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Treatment target: TDP-43 protein
Will MND ever be a curable disease? A big question, but this is the vision of all the hard-working researchers in this field. What are the prospects for a cure? One group of researchers believe the answer is in preventing misfolding of TDP-43, the protein that plays an important role in MND. They set out their case in an article published in Neurotherapeutics titled TDP-43 Proteinopathy and ALS: Insights into Disease Mechanisms and Therapeutic Targets. And don’t worry, its free access. The bold abstract says it all: “we present the case that preventing the misfolding of TDP-43 and/or enhancing its clearance represents the most important target for effectively treating ALS”. The proof of the pudding….
Diagnostic test: Nerve ultrasound
Making the diagnosis of MND is not always (make that is hardly ever) straightforward. In the early stages, symptoms are vague, and clinical signs are non-specific. MND also has many mimics. One of such mimics is multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN). To distinguish this and other mimics from MND, neurologist rely on a test called nerve conduction study (NCS). Even this however is not always helpful.
Researchers have now reported that ultrasound may be more sensitive in distinguishing MND from MMN. Another sacrilegious thought! They published their paper in Journal of Neurology with a rather long title: Nerve ultrasound in the differentiation of multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with predominant lower motor neuron disease (ALS/LMND). Could the diagnosis of MND really be this simple? I am concerned that there were only 16 subjects with MND in the study, all from one centre. Perhaps a randomised, multi-centre, trial will come to the rescue?
Diagnostic biomarker: Brain iron deposition
Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is not a test neurologist rely upon to make the diagnosis of MND. Not anymore it seems, going by an article in American Journal of Neuroradiology. The paper is titled A Potential Biomarker in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In the article, the authors assessed the amount of iron deposition in the brains of people with MND using the MRI techniques called SWI and DTI. Their findings suggest that the amount of iron in the motor cortex and motor tracts of the brain is a good guide to the presence of MND. If confirmed, this technique will help to reduce the long time it often takes before neurologists confirm their suspicions of MND to patients and their families.
Prognostic biomarker: Neurofilament light chain (NfL)
The outcome of MND, poor as it often is, varies quite widely. This is influenced by several factors such as the type of MND, use of the medicine riluzole, and multidisciplinary care. New research suggests that neurofilament light chain (NfL) may be a more sensitive marker of prognosis. This is reported in an article published in Neurology titled Neurofilament light chain: A prognostic biomarker in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The authors demonstrated that patients with MND have much higher levels of NfL than those without the disease. Furthermore, subjects with MND who had the highest levels at the onset had a higher mortality hazard ratio. I think I know what that means.
Prognostic scale: ALS-MITOS predictive system
A paper in the JNNP has proposed a new predictive system for MND called ALS-MITOS, reportedly better than the more familiar ALSFRS-R. The report is titled The MITOS system predicts long-term survival in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Most practicing neurologists wouldn’t know the difference because they don’t to use such predictive systems. But MND researchers would be licking their lips at the prospect of a better measure of disease progression; it will make it much easier for them to show that their interventions really do work!
There are >100 mutations in the superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD-1), a gene known to cause MND. SOD-1 is an enzyme that binds both copper and zinc, and when defective it results in mutant copper (don’t worry, I’m just finding this out myself). Acting on this hypothesis, researchers came up with a crafty way of delivering normal copper into the central nervous system of mice modelled with SOD-1 MND. Publishing in Neurobiology of Disease, the authors showed how they achieved this with CuATSM, a chemical that contains copper and currently used for PET scans. CuATSM is readily transported into the nervous system, delivering its copper as it does so.
The paper has a rather cumbersome title: Copper delivery to the CNS by CuATSM effectively treats motor neuron disease in SODG93A mice co-expressing the Copper-Chaperone-for-SOD. The result is however anything but. The technique extended the lives of the mice by an average of 18 months. Unbelievable it seems. Any doubts however vanished when, on stopping the treatment, the mice died within 3 months. The finding is exciting enough for Eureka Alert to run the story with the headline New therapy halts progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease in mice. ‘Halt’ sounds very much like ‘cure’, but lets put the brakes on and wait for confirmation in human trials .
Treatment: Gene therapy
Every recalcitrant disease is today threatened with gene therapy. Considering it has a long list of genetic risk factors, why should MND be any different? Research taking steps in this direction is therefore long overdue. One such step was published in Gene Therapy and is titled Healthy and diseased corticospinal motor neurons are selectively transduced upon direct AAV2-2 injection into the motor cortex. The authors report that they successfully transduced motor nerves of mice models of MND. In doing so they have set the stage for gene therapy in MND. I don’t claim to understand it all, but it sounds very much like they have set the ball rolling. Promising.
Treatment: Stem cell therapy
Where gene therapy goes, stem cell therapy seems to follow. And this comes from JAMA Neurology with a classic unwieldy academic title: Safety and Clinical Effects of Mesenchymal Stem Cells Secreting Neurotrophic Factor Transplantation in Patients With Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. The content isn’t any easier to interpret, and I will not pretend I get it at all. I comfort myself that it’s all at the ‘open-label, proof of concept‘ stage, and only the very brainy brains need to delve further. But it seems to offer hope.
The sky is surely the limit. Here are a couple of other headlines if you wish to explore further:
- New role for motor neurons discovered
- Strictly monitored exercise programs reduce motor deterioration in ALS