Research Matters at The University of Arizona College of Medicine

April 18, 2007

We're looking for a few good golfers! Openings are available for the seventh annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic, which will be held Friday, April 20, at the Omni National Golf Resort and Spa, The event raises funds for ALS research at the UA College of Medicine. For more information, contact Ana Himelic, 520-275-8187, or e-mail

To arrange interviews with ALS patients and/or family members, please contact Jean Spinelli, AHSC Public Affairs, 520-626-7301.

New treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) one day may be possible using adult neural stem cells from a patient's own nervous system, according to investigators in the Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at The University of Arizona College of Medicine Department of Neurology in Tucson. These cells have the potential to be activated to develop into new nerve cells, replacing those lost to ALS as well as other neuromuscular diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

ALS (also called "Lou Gehrig's disease" after the famous New York Yankee who lost his life to the disorder) is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease affecting adults from all walks of life. The disease, which typically occurs randomly in the population, causes a slow loss of muscle function by affecting the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control movement, leading eventually to death.

To better understand the mechanisms underlying this complex disease, UA researchers are examining the basic control mechanisms of adult neural stem cells (NSCs). NSCs are located in the spinal cord and brain from the earliest times of development through adulthood, and are the key stem cells from which the entire nervous system is derived.

"Understanding the underlying control mechanisms behind the neural stem cells' behavior will allow us to more effectively utilize the potential of these cells in human disease. By focusing on the control of adult neural stem cells, we hope to provide data that will enhance our understanding of cellular treatment option in the devastating illness," says Dr. Timothy Miller, assistant professor of neurology and pathology at the UA College of Medicine and director of the Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. "Our goal is to replace the motor neurons lost in ALS patients, so that the effects of ALS can be slowed or possibly even replaced."

NSCs have the potential to to form new motor neurons in mature nervous systems. "We have found that there is an intrinsic block within these NSCs, which prevents these cells from becoming neurons," says stem cell expert Dr. Jonathan Flax, a cellular biologist who is a research assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology in the UA department of neurology. "By understanding the nature of this blockade, we may be able to overcome it and generate new neurons to replace those lost during neurologic disease or injury. By using these adult stem cells that already are present in the patient's own nervous system, no transplant would be required."

Utilizing endogenous (a patient's own) NSCs avoids many of the scientific and political hurdles associated with exogenous (another person's) NSCs, notes Dr. Miller. "Besides the technical difficulties of transplanting stem cells throughout the brain and spinal cord, using exogenous NSCs adds the issues of rejection by the immune system of the recipient and the possibility of inadvertently introducing a foreign cell that may contain a virus."

The UA's ALS research is funded by the Himelic Foundation, created by the family, friends and colleagues of Jim Himelic, a friend of the Tucson community and much respected juvenile court judge who died from ALS in February 2000. The annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic, held in Tucson every spring since 2001, has raised $440,000 for ALS research at the UA College of Medicine.

All proceeds from the Himelic golf classic directly benefit UA ALS research, and have allowed the UA to hire Dr. Flax, who is one of 10 individuals in the country conducting adult neural stem cell research for the treatment of ALS.

In 2004, the department of neurology's stem cell laboratory officially was named "The Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory." The University's neuromuscular research program also is part of the Western ALS Study Group, a consortium of dedicated ALS investigators from around the nation, and the Neurogenomics Division of the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, a leader in the field of genomic discovery.

"We are dedicated to laboratory and clinical-based research and to the comprehensive care of patients with neuromuscular diseases, including ALS," says Dr. Bruce M. Coull, professor and head of the UA department of neurology. "Our hope is that this cutting-edge research will eradicate ALS within our lifetime."

Dr. Miller adds, "The support of the Himelic Foundation has proved crucial in our research program and we are grateful to all the supporters of this work locally, nationally and internationally. It remains our goal to expand the utility of laboratory bench discoveries into the clinic and provide for our patients. Supporters of this local effort to raise awareness and funding for ALS research can make an immediate difference and have a lasting impact."

According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, every day an average of 15 people are newly diagnosed with ALS -- more than 5,000 people per year -- and ALS currently affects as many as 35,000 Americans. Unfortunately, the average life expectancy following diagnosis typically is two to five years.

For more information about ALS research at the UA, and the annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic and other ways to support this research, visit the Himelic Foundation Web site,

The seventh annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic will be held Friday, April 20, at the Omni National Golf Resort Spa, 2727 W. Club Drive, Tucson. Prizes include dinner for 10 with UA Coach Lute Olson and an autographed guitar from Sheryl Crow. All proceeds support amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) research at The University of Arizona College of Medicine's Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory. For more information or to register, contact Ana Himelic 520-275-8187,, or visit the Web site,