Inside Rensselaer
SBRL Study Will Investigate Possible ALS Risk Factors
Researchers in Rensselaer’s Social and Behavioral Research Lab (SBRL) are leading a study to investigate potential environmental, lifestyle, and medical variables that may contribute to the onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Through a national survey constructed with the help of an advisory panel, the SBRL hopes to contribute to an emerging body of research into potential causes of ALS.

Called the Patricia Wieler Memorial ALS Project, the study is being primarily funded by Eric “Rip” Wieler ’54 in memory of his late wife, who suffered from ALS and for whom the research project is named.

Commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord causing muscle weakening, atrophy, and eventual paralysis.

Several studies have investigated possible environmental causes of ALS, but none have conclusively identified links between external factors and disease onset.

SBRL researchers are currently working with advisory board members to devise the most effective and methodologically rigorous questions possible for a survey that will be distributed nationally. They expect to receive half of their responses from ALS patients or a designated family member, friend, or caretaker who can respond on the patient’s behalf. The second half of the responses will come from individuals who have a similar background to the patients, but who do not have ALS, according to James Watt, director of the SBRL and project administrator.

“This project is the culmination of a dream I have had since my wife died 19 years ago,” said Wieler.
“Until now, many physicians have searched for possible cures for ALS without even knowing what causes the disease.
I have long sought the proper environment to sponsor a project that uses advanced analysis techniques
to properly search for the most likely causes of ALS.”

“The existing body of ALS research has revealed possible connections between the disease’s onset and a single or small set of variables such as military service; exposure to lead, pesticides, and herbicides; and behavioral variables such as diet and smoking,” said Watt. “Most of these studies have focused on a single factor. Our project will involve asking questions about a wider range of such variables, and investigating complex interactions between environmental factors and possible genetic factors.”

Wieler serves as a member of the project’s advisory board along with Wilfredo Colon, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology; Russ Ferland, assistant professor of biology; William “Al” Wallace, professor of decision sciences and engineering systems; Paula Loring Simon ’68, Rensselaer trustee; and Dhelia “Dee” Williamson, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who has extensive experience researching various motor neuron diseases including ALS.

“This project is the culmination of a dream I have had since my wife died 19 years ago,” said Wieler. “Until now, many physicians have searched for possible cures for ALS without even knowing what causes the disease. I have long sought the proper environment to sponsor a project that uses advanced analysis techniques to properly search for the most likely causes of ALS, and I am grateful to all those at RPI who are making this possible. I am very optimistic about our potential for success.”

The current research is planned for one year. If the initial survey successfully produces environmental clues related to the disease’s onset, the researchers will undertake a much more extensive survey, according to Watt.

Wieler’s support of this study supports the $1.4 billion Renaissance at Rensselaer capital campaign.

To learn more about Renaissance at Rensselaer:
The Campaign for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, go to www.rpi.edu/campaign/index.html.

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Inside Rensselaer, Strategic Communications and External Relations
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 7, November 8, 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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