British Columbia

B.C. researchers seek ALS cure with global DNA mapping project

Vancouver-based Dr. Ian Mackenzie spoke to CBC's The Early Edition about joining an international research project that uses DNA mapping to find a cure for ALS.

1,000 Canadians are diagnosed with ALS every year

The international project — called Project MinE — is mapping the DNA of 15,000 patients living with ALS and comparing them to a control group to see if there are genetic factors that put people at risk for the disease. (CBC)

A Vancouver-based research team will contribute to an international project mapping the DNA of patients with ALS in the hope of finding a cure.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, affects neurons in the body. Cells in the brain and spinal cord suddenly start dying, and the patient experiences a gradual weakening of the muscles until they become paralyzed, losing the ability to move, talk, swallow and eventually breathe.

Currently, there is no effective cure and scientists do not know what causes the neurons to die.

Dr. Ian Mackenzie, a medical professor at the University of British Columbia and neuropathologist at Vancouver Coastal Health, is one of the participating researchers.

The international effort — called Project MinE — began in 2013 in the Netherlands. It will map and analyze the genetic information of 15,000 patients with ALS and compare them with a sample from the general population.

Mackenzie told CBC's The Early Edition the project aims to highlight what genetic factors put individuals at risk.

"If we can understand what that sort of genetic profile is, that will help us understand what the pathological processes are that cause the disease [and] that will then lead us to more effective treatment strategies," he explained.

Collaboration needed to make big advance

Mackenzie says technology for genetic mapping has advanced to the point where it is quicker and cheaper than ever before, but since there's so much data to analyze international collaboration was needed.

"With a disease like ALS … it's really not possible for any one group of scientists or even one country to accumulate data they need in order to make advances in these diseases," he said. "It's really got to be a sort of international collaboration if we're going to get the power we need in order to make big advances in these diseases."

Mackenzie is optimistic the research could result in significant advances. 

"I'm fairly optimistic that within my lifetime some useful treatments and therapies will be developed," he said. "I think we're definitely getting close to developing something useful in this disease."

1,000 Canadians are diagnosed with ALS every year, according to the ALS Society of Canada.

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the audio, click on the link labelled Vancouver researcher joins international effort to find ALS cure