Deeply personal research highlighted during MP visit to Cashman lab

Pictured: Dr. Eddie Pokrishevsky explains his work to MP Drouin (image credit: Geoff Lister).

One Wednesday afternoon in November the Honourable Francis Drouin, Member of Parliament for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, sat in the conference room in the DMCBH Koerner Pavilion labs, and listened. In a year when scientists have been rallying in support of the Fundamental Science Review and its implications for Canadian science funding, it was an opportunity to share the importance and broad scope of basic science in a less formal way.

“I told them not to, but it’s every scientist’s tendency to want to show their data on PowerPoint slides,” laughed Dr. Neil Cashman as he introduced the members of his lab, one by one, and the varied arms of their research into the cause and cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In the Cashman lab, a team of five trainees and research associates are engaged in translational ALS research.

  • Dr. Eddie Pokrishevsky began with an explanation of how a misfolded protein  responsible for ALS spreads from cell to cell.
  • Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Beibei Zhao discussed her efforts to design an ALS vaccine – she has been working toward a vaccine to delay ALS onset and slow its progression.
  • Dr. Max Silverman, a Research Associate, talked about the past seven years of her work in the Cashman lab. Dr. Silverman brings a background in infectious disease research to the study of ALS, which informs her hypothesis around the role of extracellular vesicles in ALS.
  • Dr. Cath Cowan spoke of modelling ALS in fruit flies to better understand the genetic basis of the disease.
  • Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Luke McAlary talked about controlling protein aggregation and the spread of degeneration throughout the brain.  

“ALS research is imperfect,” explained Dr. Cashman, “and imperfect research is hard to fund. We don’t yet know what causes it, so to frame our proposals we have to adapt to CIHR’s standards. Our projects generally don’t fit CIHR’s criteria from the standpoint of scientific risk.”

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a degenerative condition that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons progressively deteriorate and die so that the brain can no longer initiate and control muscle movement. Patients in the later stages of the disease may become paralyzed. Between 2500 and 3000 people in Canada live with ALS.

Dr. Cashman has been a leader in the field of ALS research. In 2014, Dr. Cashman and his team identified the mechanism through which ALS is transmitted throughout the cells of the brain.

“For this kind of research, the issue is in part funding, but also the need to highlight the disease,” said Dr. Cashman. “There are strategic programs for disease research at CIHR, but ALS is not one of them.”

“Special, strategic funding for ALS research would bring us closer to curing ALS,” said Dr. Cashman. “This is important research, and for many of us—and for me—this research is deeply personal.”

As 2017 comes to a close and the Canadian federal budget announcement for 2018 approaches, researchers are working to get the message out about the importance of funding basic science and the discovery research that will help them answer the big questions and—perhaps more importantly—figure out which questions still need to be asked in order to find treatments and cures for devastating diseases like ALS.

“There are a lot of researchers who need funding to enable basic research,” says Dr. Cashman. “We hope that the CIHR and other organizations recognize that translational research is also required to speed the development of effective therapeutics.”

For more information on UBC’s role in supporting the Fundamental Science Review, visit research.ubc.ca. Find out more about how other Canadian universities are backing the report at univcan.ca.