November 12, 2008

UAMS Dedicates Thomas May Center for ALS Research

 UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson talks with John Crow, Ph.D., director of the ALS Research Center.
UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson talks
with John Crow, Ph.D., director of
the ALS Research Center.

Thomas May speaks to friends, colleagues and supporters of the ALS Research Center named for him.
Thomas May speaks to friends,
colleagues and supporters of the
ALS Research Center named for him.

 Crow and Stacy Rudnicki, M.D., pose with May and members of his family.
Crow and Stacy Rudnicki, M.D., pose
with May and members of his family.

Former Arkansas Razorbacks football coach Frank Broyles called May an inspiration.
Former Arkansas Razorbacks
football coach Frank Broyles
called May an inspiration.

Nov. 12, 2008 | For a while, the dedication of the new J. Thomas May Center for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Research sounded more like a pep rally as supporters cheered the Pine Bluff banker for whom the center is named, as well as the Center’s research toward a cure for the crippling disease.

Former Arkansas Razorbacks football players and coaches praised the positive attitude and spirit of May, a longtime football fan and former University of Arkansas trustee, who has ALS. The 150 attending the dedication in the Biomedical Research Building that houses the new ALS Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) also applauded the Center and prospects of a cure being found.

“Through the money given to support this center, a cure could be found right inside this institution,” said Jim Lindsey, chairman of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees and former Razorbacks football player. “And better yet, that it could happen in Tommy May’s lifetime would be awesome.”

The laboratories and researchers that make up the May Center for ALS Research are being supported now by more than $2 million in gifts and pledges to UAMS from friends and colleagues of May, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Simmons First National Corp. in Pine Bluff and Simmons First National Bank.

“I’ll never forget when I called him after hearing about the diagnosis,” said Frank Broyles, the legendary Razorback coach. “What he said was ‘we’re going to stay positive. We’re going to keep working.’

“He will always be an inspiration to me.”

Those sentiments were echoed by another former player and coach, Harold Horton, president of the Razorback Foundation, who promised May that “there won’t be a day that you won’t be in our prayers.” Horton added that his family grew closer to May’s after hearing of the diagnosis since one of Horton’s nephews had been diagnosed at 29 with the disease before dying at the age of 32.

Harry Ryburn, chairman of the executive committee of Simmons First National Corp., said May was someone who “dedicated every hour of every day to caring about other people.” Ryburn said that upon hearing of the diagnosis, the bank’s board members were determined to find out all they could about the disease and what they could do to help May and others.

It was decided, Ryburn said, that money should be raised to support ALS research and “not just an amount that looks good but an amount that does good.” He pointed at the research effort that found a cure for polio and called for a similar effort for ALS.

Research funding for ALS is dwarfed by support for cancer or heart disease because it affects far fewer people, “so it is going to take difference makers willing to come forward and support ALS research,” Ryburn said

Lindsey, University of Arkansas System President B. Alan Sugg, Ph.D., UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson, M.D., Center Director John P. Crow, Ph.D., and other supporters unveiled a plaque for the center, dedicating it to May. May said he was “overwhelmed” by the support for the center by his friends, family and colleagues.

“I’m proud to have my name associated with UAMS,” May said. “But while I am humbled and honored, I am more proud that your investment reflects not just your love for me but represents a commitment to finding a cure for ALS for everyone.”

To him, May said, the Center also is for other families touched by ALS, including those who have lost loved ones to the disease and those still fighting it. More awareness for ALS research will raise more money for the effort, he said, and find a cure faster.

Crow noted the translational science focus of the center as it works to bring new ALS treatments quickly from the lab to the patient. In searching for an analogy for what the scientists were doing, he said he chose a jigsaw puzzle showing a river carrying death signals to the spinal nerve cells, and being fed by many streams and tributaries.

Crow said the “magic bullet” for ALS is to dam the river, “but we don’t know exactly where the river is.” However, researchers have puzzle pieces that show where many of the streams are. By shutting off a stream, they can slow the flow to the river, and slow the progression of the disease.

The support for the new Center will allow expansion of research efforts aimed at testing combinations of agents to find an effective drug “cocktail,” Crow said.  His group is looking at drugs that are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, combined with substances derived from dietary supplements – so-called “nutraceuticals.”  In this way, any new treatments which are found could translate to the clinic very quickly.

UAMS also is home to an MDA/ALS clinic, led by Stacy Rudnicki, M.D., a professor of neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine. The multidisciplinary clinic serves patients from across the state.