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amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research and the coronavirus pandemic



Transcript

SPEAKER 1: Hi, everyone. I hope you've been enjoying the series. Today we decided take a break from the history lessons and cover the historic event we're currently living, the COVID-19 pandemic. We'll be highlighting companies that are dedicated to finding solutions for problems that can affect all of us, and see how they are continuing to work during the pandemic.

Today we are sitting down with a research lab in Boston that is researching a treatment in the hopes to develop a cure for a very complex disease, ALS. I had the pleasure of speaking with their senior director of development, Carol Hamilton, to discuss challenges they're facing, how they've adapted, and what the future holds for disease research.

CAROL HAMILTON: I am the senior director of development at ALS TDI, the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge. And it is my role to work with a team of people to help raise the money so that the scientists can spend it efficiently and develop treatments for ALS.

SPEAKER 1: Do you have a lab, or is it an office, or how does it work?

CAROL HAMILTON: We do. We have both. We have a state-of-the-art lab in Cambridge, the largest independent ALS research lab in the world. There are 36 full-time scientists who are in the lab every day, when it's not the middle of a pandemic. Our mission is to develop treatments as quickly as possible for people living with ALS. So we do the preclinical work, the work in animals, the work in cells-- all of that to get drugs into the clinic for humans-- patients to try.

SPEAKER 1: So I imagine, based on what you just said, that you really have to physically be in the lab in order to work. But when the pandemic hit, everyone fell into this work from home order. My first question is, what was one of the first obstacles you had to overcome?

CAROL HAMILTON: Great question-- the first obstacle obviously is, how do we continue the research at an appropriate pace while keeping everybody safe? We also had to make sure that we kept the funding rolling in order to keep the work going. But luckily, we as scientists-- I am not one, but I am surrounded by a lot of really smart ones every day-- especially as medical researchers-- they had their eyes on the coronavirus back in January. We were already watching this and we were already preparing. We're able to keep some people in the lab at all times because they were considered essential, but we had developed systems ahead of time that made us ready to keep everything going when all of the regulations went in place.

SPEAKER 1: A lot of people to transfer from the office to the home, they maybe just had to bring their work computer. I imagine the scientists had some other equipment that they wanted to bring, but some probably couldn't leave the lab as well.

CAROL HAMILTON: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of this is integrated into the lab, and you can't just pull it out of the wall. But there was some equipment that some people took home with them that is relevant to their particular part of the puzzle. Because we consider ourselves 24/7 direct development, we have a lot of automated systems. We have an incredible group who works with our technology.

We had automated systems and we had robotics that can be operated remotely. We would use those robotics to keep us going on weekends, or evenings, or whatever, and we made sure ahead of the lockdown that those-- we pressure tested robotics systems to make sure we'd be able to keep the research going even if somebody wasn't there. So it was really quite amazing.

We also have what really is a telemedicine program, where we are working with people with ALS who truly, in their bodies, store the clues to ending this disease. We're working directly with them. They offer us a plethora of knowledge and data. And we do it remotely.

SPEAKER 1: Looking towards the future, how do you think disease research will change since COVID?

CAROL HAMILTON: I think we're going to see a lot more of the science community aware of what's going on in the world, so to speak, and what could come down the pipe to affect their work. I also think that it's been really interesting watching what would normally be a process that would take years and years bringing treatments and vaccines forward for a virus-- watching that happen at an accelerated pace, when regulations are eased a bit and everybody gets on one problem.

So that has been really cool. So now I think there's going to be pressure on regulatory agencies to remain a little bit more liberal going forward. On the other hand, why-- if we think we can have the vaccine for COVID in a year or 18 months, why has it been 80 years since Lou Gehrig gave his farewell speech, and we still have nothing to end this disease? And it's a really fair question.

But if you think of it, to simplify it, with a virus, you're trying to kill something. You're trying to kill that virus. It's a lot easier to kill something than it is to keep it alive. In ALS, we're trying to keep motor neurons alive. It's a lot harder to figure out how to do that. We're also dealing with an incredibly heterogeneous disease. Someone with ALS can live nine months and can live 19 years. So really, we're trying to attack a bunch of subsets of this disease, which makes it a lot harder. In COVID, it's one thing that you're trying to attack.

SPEAKER 1: Are there other diseases that ALS can be compared to or can fall into the same family? The reason I ask is, if we find some treatment or, of course, the cure for ALS, will it actually help other diseases that also need treatments and cures?

CAROL HAMILTON: It very well may. Across neurodegeneration-- Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, MS, ALS-- there are common pathways. There are mechanisms that we see that are treatable. There are targets that are in common that we can aim drugs at. So depending on what the drug does, yes, it is possible that a treatment for ALS would be potentially efficacious in other neurodegenerative disorders-- and in other disorders.

The immune system is relevant to an awful lot of disease far beyond neurodegeneration, so it may be-- most of the drugs that you see come to market now are drugs that already existed. They just now have been tested in other disease indications, and have found to be efficacious. So it may not just be neurodegeneration, but something that we come up with helps it.

SPEAKER 1: Sometimes it takes something like a pandemic to get the world's attention. What has to continue to happen in order to find treatments and cures for diseases like ALS? What type of message would you want to send to the public, as I think now, they're really starting to open their eyes and understand the challenges that we face-- that you face as a research facility?

CAROL HAMILTON: There is the opportunity in ALS right now to have a treatment available to people with the appropriate funding. I love talking to people about the fact that their donation today is way different. There are people who donated years ago who got us to the point where these guys are going to get the glory, because we can do this now.

And regarding the pandemic too, one of the things that was-- that really was hard for me in the beginning was, as I feared, a slowdown in ALS research-- not just at ALS TDI, but across the board-- enrollment in clinical trials, where people couldn't get to hospitals. It really struck me that here was the world for-- at that point, it was a matter of couple of weeks-- who were all cloistered and self-isolating when this population, the ALS community, has been suffering that level of isolation for generations.

And it was just killing me-- and you can hear it's going to start to make me cry again-- that the rest of the world then felt, for just a few short months, what these people go through for the remainder of their lives. And it potentially could have slowed things down, and I wasn't going to live with that.

SPEAKER 1: Well, it's totally commendable how you handled it. I think a lot of people would have just not really been able to figure it out, but it sounds like you and your team have. Carol, thank you for the time today. You are inspiring. Your team is inspiring. How you guys have been able to continue during the pandemic-- it's just amazing. You can find out more about ALS TDI in the description below. And be sure to visit britannica.com to learn more about our health. Also, don't forget to follow and subscribe.

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