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Stephen Hawking has a motor neurone disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)  (Source:
Ongoing BioMOx study reveals nerve damage pattern in the brains of MND patients

The Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association and the Medical Research Council (MRC), along with researchers from the University of Oxford, have joined forces to conduct the Oxford Study for Biomarkers in MND/ALS (BioMOx). This resulted in the identification of a common signature of nerve damage in patients who have MND. 

Dr. Martin Turner and his team from the University of Oxford have discovered a "unique similarity" between nerve damage found in the region of the brain which connects the motor neurones to the brain, and nerve damage found in the corpus callosum, which is a region of the brain that acts as a connection between the right and left sides. 

Until now, patients with MND have had to wait too long for a diagnosis of MND because MND research was hindered by the lack of predictable markers, or biomarkers, of the progression of the disease. Researchers also lacked an early diagnostic test. With the use of an MND biomarker, MND patients can be diagnosed more quickly and accurately, which is the main goal of the BioMOx study. 

"The BioMOx study is one of the largest biomarker studies for MND in the world," said Dr. Brian Dickie, director of research development at the MND Association. "It's very encouraging to hear the first exciting results emerging from this four-year initiative."

In this particular study, researchers scanned healthy brains as well as brains that contained MND damage using an advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique. Every six months, researchers for the BioMOx study followed changes in the brain, in blood and in spinal cord fluid of people with MND. By scanning and comparing specific areas of the brain, Turner and his team were able to find a pattern of nerve damage within MND patients, which has led to the discovery of a MND biomarker. 

"The finding of a common pattern of nerve pathway damage in a varied group of MND patients holds the promise of a much needed biomarker," said Turner. "This study confirms the ability of advanced MRI techniques to sensitively detect nerve damage in a wide range of people living with MND. It builds on a decade of international work, and shows that MRI is now a frontrunner in the quest to generate biomarkers of disease activity in MND." 

Researchers hope to use what they've discovered in the BioMOx study to develop improved treatments for patients with MND. 

"MRI scanning provides an exciting 'window on the brain,' allowing researchers to link the changes occurring in the central nervous system with the 'real world' symptoms of MND," said Dickie. "Understanding these changing events is going to be central to the development of future treatments."

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RE: Hawking and ALS
By UsernameX on 11/5/2010 12:30:53 PM , Rating: 2
The more time passes the more experts think that Hawking doesn't actually have ALS but some similar, possibly related, disorder. No one, not one single other person, has survived anything like as long as he has after being diagnosed, let alone in the essentially paralyzed state that he is in. It would be interesting to see if he has the biomarker that they discovered, it might answer the question once and for all if their test is accurate enough.

This is very interesting. I didn't know that!

Perhaps it's because I don't pay enough attention to the medical field, but it seems that within the last 10 years we've made little progress to any major disease. Sure we might identify it in it's early stages more easily, but I've never seen a report that we've stopped X disease in it's tracks, or better yet cured it!

I've got a rare eye disease Choroideremia. I donate monthly and look at their website every day in hopes for a cure.. or at least stop it's progression. We live in an advanced culture but it seems to be moving at a snails pace.

My two cent rant :)

RE: Hawking and ALS
By Snow01 on 11/5/2010 2:40:45 PM , Rating: 2
Typically you need to first find out what causes something before you can begin work on curing it. The problem you mention is primarily due to hitting a wall, so to speak, on the level of easily observable and testable phenomena. Really, if you think about it, the only thing we've really managed to cure is bacterial infections, and long term it's likely that bacteria will become largely resistant to known antibiotics. Sure, immunizations were a major breakthrough as well (polio, etc.), but that's definitely different than a cure.

The current research paradigm involves many people each focusing on a specific element, the sharing of that knowledge, and then hopefully at some point we'll have enough peices of the puzzle to solve a particular problem. You're right, it is an agonizingly slow, tedious process.

RE: Hawking and ALS
By Solandri on 11/5/2010 3:01:11 PM , Rating: 3
Perhaps it's because I don't pay enough attention to the medical field, but it seems that within the last 10 years we've made little progress to any major disease.

It isn't that we've made little progress in the last 10 years. It's that all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and all that's left are the high-hanging ones that are difficult to reach.

The diseases which are easily prevented by vaccination (polio, measles, etc) have been mostly eliminated in the West. The crown jewel of modern medicine - the eradication of smallpox - was only possible because the disease cannot survive in any animal other than humans. Bacterial infections were mostly held in check with antibiotics.

The diseases which remain are somehow immune or resistant to the easy cures. Influenza mutates frequently enough that vaccination is not very effective. Malaria survives in a wide variety of species so we can't just eradicate it like we did smallpox. Cancer in particular is a tough nut to crack because it's your body's own cells going out of control. There's very little to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells, and thus it's difficult to target the disease while sparing the body. And AIDS attacks the very cells in your body whose job it is to fight off foreign pathogens.

Medicine is progressing faster than ever. It's just that the remaining diseases are much more complicated to overcome.

RE: Hawking and ALS
By Everyone on 11/8/2010 9:58:42 AM , Rating: 2
This is very true.

Another important point is that these difficult to cure diseases that have been presenting so much difficulty actually have had a significant amount of progress made on them.

Everyone holds out for a cure for HIV (as an example), which we all know has not been achieved yet. However what many do not realize is that anti-retroviral therapy developed in the past decade has turned AIDS from a death-sentence, into a very manageable disease. The life-expectancy of HIV+ patients has increased dramatically just in the past few years alone, and shockingly enough is starting to approach the life expectancy of a normal, healthy person (approaching... not there yet!)

This same case holds true for a number of cancers as well, and too many other less-well-known diseases to list.

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