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UCI Team Finds Sign of ALS-Virus Link

Health: In preliminary study, scientists discover traces of the organism in victims of Lou Gehrig's disease.

January 12, 2000|PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UC Irvine researchers have found signs of a virus in a small number of patients who died of the devastating nervous system disorder known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the first evidence backing the theory that a viral agent causes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

The discovery, reported Tuesday in the January issue of Neurology, is preliminary, but if it can be "confirmed and clarified," it could lead to methods for treating the disease, editors of the prestigious journal wrote.

Scientists at UCI's College of Medicine, as well colleagues at Rockefeller University in Lyon, France, found that 15 of 17 people who had died of the disease showed evidence of a virus in motor neurons in their spinal cords.

The virus, similar to one called echovirus-7 that can cause meningitis or encephalitis, was found in only one of 29 people who had died of other causes.

"Many researchers have suspected a viral link to ALS, but in this study we were able to identify a virus known for nerve damage in the exact areas of the nervous system that are affected by this disease," UC Irvine researcher Martina Berger, who led the study in Lyon, said in a statement.

"We think this knowledge will help us finally uncover what causes this disease and may someday lead us to developing a treatment."

Discovered in 1869, ALS is the disease that killed legendary Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig in 1941 and afflicts physicist Stephen Hawking. It works by destroying motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, eventually causing paralysis.

The disease largely spares the brain, leaving memory, language and other central nervous system functions intact. But it is incurable and fatal, with patients typically dying of respiratory paralysis. About 4,600 people are diagnosed with ALS each year in the United States.

Research is continuing to determine whether the virus was correctly detected and whether it is a cause of the disease or present for some other reason.

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