UAMS First in State Designated as MDA/ALS Research Center

By todd

LITTLE ROCK – The Muscular Dystrophy Association today officially designated the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) as an MDA/Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Research and Clinical Center, one of only 33 in the country.


ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, destroys nerve cells that control voluntary muscles, which leads to severe muscle wasting and paralysis. Death typically results within three to five years of diagnosis, usually from respiratory complications. About 30,000 Americans are affected by ALS.  The cause of ALS isn’t fully understood and no cure exists.


“This designation is exciting not only for UAMS, but for our patients with neuromuscular disorders who are waiting anxiously for new treatments,” said Stacy Rudnicki, M.D., director of the new center. Rudnicki is associate professor of neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine and a neurologist at the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute, where the center is located.


Muscular dystrophy describes a group of more than 40 diseases characterized by progressive degeneration of voluntary muscles. The Little Rock District MDA office serves more than 500 families in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, including about 100 battling ALS.


During the dedication, Susan Garrett, president of the Arkansas MDA Executive Committee, shared personal insights about her mother’s struggle with ALS. Judy Rutherford of Sheridan, a patient at the UAMS clinic, discussed how she has learned to live with ALS and how the UAMS clinic has helped her find the resources she needs to make life easier.


MDA/ALS Research and Clinical Centers are located in major medical institutions chosen by MDA for the amount of ALS research taking place and the vast experience of the staff in dealing with the disorder.  Prior to the development of the UAMS ALS clinic, patients in the area with ALS had to travel to St. Louis or Dallas to be seen in a multidisciplinary clinic, receive new treatments or participate in clinical trials at a designated research center.


UAMS has been a designated MDA clinic since 1990, but only recently received the designation as a research center. The designation will allow patients more opportunities to participate in clinical trials involving ALS treatments. UAMS will collaborate with the other research centers and MDA on their findings. UAMS faculty physicians also provide clinical care at an MDA clinic at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.


Rudnicki said UAMS will tentatively be participating in two therapeutic trials for ALS in the next year, both sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Coenzyme Q10, a dietary supplement that’s available over the counter, and ceftriaxone, an antibiotic, will be studied for their potential to slow down the progression of ALS. “Our patients are always enthusiastic to try new treatments,” Rudnicki said, explaining that currently there is only one medication available for ALS, which only provides a modest benefit.


John P. Crow, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the UAMS College of Medicine, has discovered two classes of catalytic antioxidant compounds that dramatically enhance survival of mice with ALS-type symptoms and preserve near-normal muscular function when administered at the onset of the disease. He has been given approval by the Food and Drug Administration to investigate the compounds further through human clinical trials. “These results are some of the best ever reported for a classical pharmacological agent,” Crow said of the compounds.


The UAMS MD/ALS Research Center and Clinic is multidisciplinary in order to best serve the patients’ needs. Rudnicki said patients often have to drive several hours to reach the clinic, so they want to address as many issues as they can while they are at the center.


Other team members for the MDA/ALS Center include:

  • Katalin Pocsine, M.D., assistant professor of neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine and a neurologist at the Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute
  • Gary McCullough, Ph.D., manager of the speech pathology program within University Rehab and assistant professor of audiology and speech pathology in the UAMS College of Health Related Professions
  • Deborah Fewell, a licensed practical nurse
  • Carroll Walls Jr., an occupational therapist
  • Susie Moreland, a respiratory therapist

MDA is a voluntary health agency working to defeat neuromuscular diseases through programs of worldwide research, comprehensive services, and far-reaching professional and public health education. The association’s programs are funded almost entirely by private contributors.


The Little Rock District MDA Office provides at no cost: initial diagnosis, follow-up medical care, physical, occupational and respiratory therapy evaluations, genetic counseling and influenza vaccinations. The local chapter also supports summer camping programs at Camp Aldersgate for children and support groups for individuals with neuromuscular disorders and their families.


MDA expends more than 76 percent of its income on program services.  Money Magazine ranks MDA as one of the top 10 best managed charities.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, five centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has more than 2,200 students and 660 residents and is the state’s largest public employer with almost 9,000 employees. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $4.1 billion a year.


UAMS centers of excellence are the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy and Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute.