Researchers at the University of Manitoba say they've made a breakthrough discovery that could help some people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, live longer.

In a research article published Thursday in the journal PLOS Genetics, the research team from the university's Regenerative Medicine Program has identified the way the ALS gene mutates in the cells of some patients.

"Rather than turning off the production of a protein the cell knows is bad, it just keeps on plowing and plowing and plowing more, creating a worse situation," said Geoff Hicks, director of the regenerative medicine program at the Winnipeg-based university.

ALS protein

Researchers at the University of Manitoba have uncovered information about this ALS protein. They now hope to find ways to slow down the disease's progress. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

"We also were able to correct this regulation, that is to say, trick the cell into thinking it's getting the signal to stop making this mutant protein."

Hicks said the discovery could change the lives of people — including more than 250 Manitobans — who live with ALS.

"I want to emphasize what we found is not a cure, at least not today or any time soon. But What we found is a likelier way to slow this disease down," he said.

"Anything that can slow the disease down can translate to years or decades of extended and better life for those already affected."

Hicks said the next step is to test the team's discovery on mice within two to three years.

ALS is an incurable degenerative disease in which patients slowly lose control of their arms and legs, and eventually their throat and diaphragm. Eighty per cent of those who are diagnosed with ALS die within five years.

News of the research breakthrough has provided a glimmer of hope for Victor Perrin, a former school principal in Winnipeg who was diagnosed with ALS in January 2008.

"I may or may not benefit, but if I don't, others with years to come will benefit from this discovery," he said.