An NC State professor is conducting research on the environmental causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, after being diagnosed with the disease almost three years ago.
Michael Bereman, an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences, began conducting his research on ALS to fight against the disease, for which there is no known cure. He and his research team found that the environment plays a major role in the development of the disease.
“What a lot of people don’t know about [ALS] is that 90 percent of the disease occurs in a sporadic nature, meaning that it basically takes its victims at random,” Bereman said. “For the majority, it’s not inherited. You can’t look at your mother or father or grandparents and say that they didn’t have the disease, so you won’t get it.”
ALS is a neurological disease that kills motor neurons in the brain, which give you control of your muscles. This disease affects around 20,000 people in the United States. The median lifespan for someone from diagnosis to death is three years.
David Muddiman, an NC State chemistry professor, joined forces with Bereman on ALS research. Muddiman and his research team had been studying protein modifications in blood samples of ALS patients when Bereman suggested that Muddiman look for neurotoxins in the samples, which they found.
The team discovered that cyanobacteria produced by algae blooms, which are caused by fertilizer runoff in bodies of water, release the neurotoxin that Bereman and Muddiman discovered to be in the blood samples of ALS patients. Muddiman discussed how communities that are closer to areas with fertilizer runoff have higher numbers of people with ALS.
“In Australia, people who live around freshwater lakes have higher instances of ALS by a factor of four,” Muddiman said. “It can’t be some coincidence.”
The type of food a person eats may also be a factor in the likelihood of contracting ALS. In a recent publication by Bereman and Muddiman, they documented findings that there are around two milligrams of neurotoxins per serving of scallops.
“Don’t panic if you love scallops,” Muddiman said. “We don’t really know what that means. How many scallops do you have to eat? Do you have to eat them every day, every week, for them to actually be positive of ALS?”
Another component of Bereman’s research has to do with biomarkers, which are molecules that are measurable in plasma, blood and cerebrospinal fluid. The idea is to develop a marker that can better describe the progression of ALS.
“Dating back about 60 years, the hypothesis has been out there that these [neurotoxins] are connected to cyanobacteria, but we have definitely added to the knowledge about how these toxins may play a role in the disease,” Bereman said. “We believe we have found a modification to one of the proteins that is caused by one of the toxins. That was a pretty big discovery. We are still trying to validate that right now.”
Despite his illness, Bereman works *full days as an assistant professor, and he and his research team still work to try and find out in what ways these neurotoxins interfere with neuronal development.
“If you can understand how the environment plays a role [in ALS], maybe you can identify a better therapeutic target, or at least try to mitigate the exposures that increase the risk of this disease,” Bereman said.
Students can learn more information about Bereman, his team and research on the research group’s webpage.
*Editor's Note: This article was updated for clarity.
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