The University of Arizona

Seed Funding Leads to Major UA Grants

May 24, 2013
ALS affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord responsible for movement. The disease causes a loss of muscle function, including the muscles used for speech, swallowing and breathing, and paralysis that eventually leads to death. The mind and senses mostly remain unaffected. Some patients may have cognitive changes, including depression and problems with decision-making and memory.
ALS affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord responsible for movement. The disease causes a loss of muscle function, including the muscles used for speech, swallowing and breathing, and paralysis that eventually leads to death. The mind and senses mostly remain unaffected. Some patients may have cognitive changes, including depression and problems with decision-making and memory.

What began as one family's financial investment to improve ALS research has developed into UA researchers being able to gain greater external funding.

Jim Himelic died in 2000, having suffered from ALS. An estimated 30,000 Americans may have ALS at any given time, and approximately 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the ALS Association.
Jim Himelic died in 2000, having suffered from ALS. An estimated 30,000 Americans may have ALS at any given time, and approximately 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the ALS Association.
The MDA/ALS Center at The University of Arizona Medical Center-South Campus opened in August 2008 and is Southern Arizona’s only multidisciplinary clinic dedicated to the care of patients with ALS. The center is one of only 43 facilities at major medical institutions in the nation designated by the Muscular Dystrophy Association as MDA/ALS Centers, indicating the high level of expert medical care and clinical research taking place there.
The MDA/ALS Center at The University of Arizona Medical Center-South Campus opened in August 2008 and is Southern Arizona’s only multidisciplinary clinic dedicated to the care of patients with ALS. The center is one of only 43 facilities at major medical institutions in the nation designated by the Muscular Dystrophy Association as MDA/ALS Centers, indicating the high level of expert medical care and clinical research taking place there.
Neurologists Katalin Scherer and Holli Horak, both UA associate professors of neurology.
Neurologists Katalin Scherer and Holli Horak, both UA associate professors of neurology.

Like the saying "mighty oaks from little acorns grow," great medical discoveries can grow from a little seed money – funds that allow researchers to conduct the preliminary research necessary for obtaining larger government and private grants.

Those grants then nurture the research as it ultimately "grows" into more effective treatments, and possibly cures, for many diseases.

That's what one family had in mind for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, research at the University of Arizona and elsewhere with the creation of the Jim Himelic Foundation, or JHF.

The family's goal is to raise $1 million in seed money to fund UA preliminary research on ALS, a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease.

When ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, took the life of Jim Himelic, a friend of the Tucson community and much-respected juvenile court judge, in 2000, his family, friends and colleagues established the foundation.

"The family's initial investment has led to our researchers being able to gain some large research grants," said Dr. David Labiner, who heads the UA neurology department.

ALS most commonly affects people between the ages 40 and 60, but also those who are younger and older. Although some survive longer, the average life expectancy following diagnosis typically is two to five years.

The foundation continues to raise funds for ALS research and, since beginning its support of UA research in 2001, has raised $832,000 through its annual Himelic Memorial Dinner and Golf Classic. The event is being held May 31 and June 1 at the Westin La Paloma Resort in Tucson.

Also, JHF supports physicians at the MDA/ALS Center at The University of Arizona Medical Center-South Campus clinic, opened in 2008. The center is one of only 42 facilities at major medical institutions in the country designated by the Muscular Dystrophy Association as MDA/ALS Centers, indicating the high level of expert medical care and clinical research taking place there.

During each clinic visit, patients meet with a physician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, respiratory therapist, speech and language pathologist, dietician and an MDA health-care services coordinator – all in one location.

Also, at the MDA/ALS Center, the foundation is working with neurologists Katalin Scherer and Holli Horak, both UA associate professors of neurology. There, Scherer and Horak apply ALS research in a clinical setting.

JHF hopes to fund local and national multicenter clinical trials, based on the ALS patient base of Southern Arizona, with the help of the ALS clinic established and directed by Scherer. Horak joined the clinic in 2010.

Earlier, in 2004, the UA College of Medicine-Tucson's neurology department's stem cell laboratory officially was named Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory in recognition of the JHF funding support.

Additionally, the foundation supports investigations at the laboratory, including research by Daniela C. Zarnescu, a UA associate professor of molecular and cellular biology and neurology.

JHF seed money has enabled Zarnescu to gain several national grants to continue her research, including two three-year grants from the Muscular Dystrophy Association totaling nearly $800,000 and a two-year grant for more than $420,000 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Zarnescu is modeling ALS in the fruit fly, Drosophila, a powerful genetic model that harbors several genes similar to those linked to human neurological and neurodegenerative disorders.

Using this model, Zarnescu's team recently completed a drug screen for compounds that alleviate ALS-like symptoms, including motor dysfunction and reduced survival. Efforts are under way to select promising compounds with therapeutic potential.

"The seed money provided by the Jim Himelic Foundation has allowed my lab to develop an ALS research program focused on understanding the mechanisms of this devastating disease as well as developing therapeutics," Zarnescu said.

She also noted that the funds support undergraduate and graduate student researchers at the UA.

"This type of support is particularly important in these difficult funding times and has enabled us to develop new disease models and drug screening strategies that are now beginning to pay off both in discoveries as well as in increased private and federal funding for the lab."