Professor Miguel Weil and his team at Tel Aviv University's Laboratory for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Personalized Medicine have discovered four biomarkers which characterize non-genetic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common motor neuron disease which has no cure.

ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease — named after the New York Yankees baseball player who died from the disease in 1941 — is characterized by muscle atrophy which leads to paralysis. The muscle atrophy is caused by degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons. Patients diagnosed with ALS also experience difficulty speaking, swallowing, and breathing.

Research out of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine recently found that stem cells used to produce growth factors could increase the survival rate of animals with Lou Gehrig's disease. Scientists have yet to find a cure for ALS, and still do not fully understand its causes and what could prevent it.

Weil and his team at Tel Aviv University collected bone marrow samples from ALS patients and used these stem cells as cellular models for the disease. They discovered that cells from different patients shared the same abnormalities of four genes, which may be biomarkers of the disease. When Weil applied toxins to the ALS cells to test their defense mechanisms, most died rather than fight the toxins, unlike healthy cells.

Weil concluded that this response can be used in drug screening for the disease and hopefully in earlier diagnostics. Identifying these genes could be an important step towards uncovering the mechanisms of the disease and for pointing scientists in the right direction for further research.

Weil plans to next search for potential drugs that can affect the genes' abnormal characteristics, or that may affect stress-induced defense mechanisms of the ALS cells.