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First trial in patients with a potential treatment of the incurable ALS muscle disease

Project of VIB, UZ Leuven and NeuroNova

Permission has been granted to start the first safety and tolerability trial on patients for a remedy for ALS. ALS is an incurable, paralyzing neurodegenerative disorder that strikes 5 persons in every 100,000.

The disease commonly affects healthy people in the most active period of their lives - without warning. Researchers from VIB at the K.U.Leuven have previously shown the possibilities for the use of VEGF in the treatment of ALS through work in animal models. The Swedish Biopharmaceutical company NeuroNova has already built upon this research. Together with UZ Leuven they’ll start the first evaluation of safety and tolerability of the drug in patients by the end of this year. This is an important step in the development of a new treatment. It will take several years before the protein can be made available as a medicine.

An incurable disease of the muscles
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) can strike anyone. The Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung, Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, the legendary New York Yankee baseball player Lou Gehrig, and astro-physicist Stephen Hawking have all been afflicted with ALS. About half of the patients dies within three years - some even in the first year - usually as a consequence of suffocation.

In ALS, the patient’s nerve bundles that extend to the muscles deteriorate. As a result the patient loses control of the muscles, and progressively becomes paralyzed. The originating mechanism of this deadly disease of deterioration - which has an enormous medical and social impact - remains obscure. At present, the disease is totally untreatable.

VEGF: a promising candidate drug
VEGF is a substance that controls the growth of blood vessels. Unexpectedly, VEGF also helps neurons survive under stressful conditions. In 2001 Peter Carmeliet’s team showed that too little VEGF causes ALS-like symptoms in mice. Later the group of Diether Lambrechts, Wim Robberecht and Peter Carmeliet showed that persons who produce too little VEGF - due to certain variations in the gene that codes for VEGF - have a higher risk of developing ALS. This was the starting point of a search for a possible treatment with the VEGF protein.

Testing the treatment on rats with a severe form of ALS and on rats with a milder form, the researchers found that, in both groups, the VEGF-treated rats manifested the disease later than the untreated animals, and they lived considerably longer.

Using a pump
The researchers also investigated what the optimal technique would be for administering VEGF. An ordinary injection proved to be ineffective. But continuous administration of the VEGF protein directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that circulates around the brain and the spinal cord) was quite effective. This was possible by means of a small pump that continuously pumps the VEGF protein in the brain. Furthermore, this technique permits a patient-oriented approach by enabling the administered dose of the VEGF protein to be easily controlled.
A story with several players
These encouraging and promising results were only the first steps on the way to a new remedy. Anders Haegerstrand and his team of the Swedish company NeuroNova have taken the development of the treatment further. After additional studies this research has reached the stage of starting the first trial in patients.

Wim Robberecht (UZ Leuven) and Markus Jerling (NeuroNova) will co-ordinate this first trial which is intended to evaluate the safety and tolerability of the drug and the infusion system. It is planned to start at the end of this year, and the investigator Dr Robberecht is currently looking for patients who are eligible for participation. These regulated studies on ALS patients will have to demonstrate the safety of the VEGF administration, and in a later stage the efficacy of VEGF as ALS therapy, before the protein can be made available as a medicine. Such procedures can easily last several years.

Sooike Stoops | alfa
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