UChicago Scientists Collaborate on ALS Research, Outreach in New Center for Motor Neuron Disease

A gift from the Lohengrin Foundation will establish the Center for Motor Neuron Disease, an initiative dedicated to furthering ALS research and outreach at the University of Chicago and local high schools.


Manuseto Library in the sunlight.

By Naina Purushothaman

The University of Chicago is establishing the Center for Motor Neuron Disease (CMND) after a $10 million gift from the Lohengrin Foundation. Headed by Director of the ALS/Motor Neuron Disease Clinic Raymond Roos and assistant professor of neurobiology Paschalis Kratsios, the CMND will conduct collaborative research into the genetic mechanisms behind amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

ALS is a rapidly progressing disease. After initial disease onset, patients usually have up to five years of life, and most affected individuals die sooner than that.

“ALS is a very horrible disease,” Roos said.

To further ALS research, the CMND will host a collaboration between the motor neuron labs of Roos and Kratsios.

Kratsios’s research specializes in the use of C. elegans, an organism with only 302 neurons, to discover genes and potential therapeutic targets to treat ALS. Kratsios did not start in the area of ALS, but when he saw the effects of the disease, he wanted to get involved.

“I saw with my own eyes how devastating the disease is,” he said. “I really wanted to do something for these patients.”

Roos has been involved in several different research areas and has been interested in muscle development, especially motor neurons.

“I got involved in ALS research a number of years ago, and I think it was probably related to my mother’s early issue related to polio,” he said.

Roos and Kratsios began working together five years ago. Their research is focused on the C9orf72 gene, which contains an unusual mutation that is one of the main causes behind inherited ALS.

“Part of our investigations is to identify what abnormalities are induced as a result of these proteins being made,” Roos said.

Roos and Kratsios have many goals for their collaborative research as a part of the CMND. Kratsios hopes that, by combining two different labs with different skills and expertise to attack a single problem, they can find a cure and therapeutics for ALS. “[Roos] has influenced my thinking a lot,” he said.

Roos added that another goal of this research is to understand ALS more generally.

“I’d like to think that the collaboration of Paschalis Kratsios, who’s a Ph.D. in neurobiology, and me, a neurologist in the department of neurology, will be a very important collaboration because he provides a spectrum of talents, and I provide an understanding of motor neuron disease research and some of the genes that are important in inherited ALS,” Roos said. “I’m very fortunate that Paschalis was recruited and is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.”

In addition to collaborative research, the CMND will fund an annual symposium, conferences, internships, and programs that will introduce local high schoolers to ALS research. The Office of Civic Engagement is working with the CMND to link public high schools in the area to the center. Both research scientists and graduate students will visit these schools and bring microscopes and equipment to the classrooms to explain why they study ALS and what they aim to achieve.

“In every type of research, science education should start early,” Kratsios said. “We want to educate students about STEM careers as early as possible. I think that’s one important step in educating the next generation of scientists. We have to start early.”

Roos is also passionate about having school outreach be one of the goals of the new center.

“We’re especially targeting schools that might not have that educational background and might not have those resources,” he said. “[The students] have different ideas about things that may be very distinct from individuals in the University of Chicago schools, in general. I want to bring them into ALS research and treatment because I think it’s going to be very important for the field.”

The center will provide internship opportunities for these high schoolers and will also extend some opportunities to undergraduates to be involved in this research

“The University of Chicago undergrads are talented individuals, and they bring something into the lab, for sure,” Roos said. “So yes, we’re interested in our center being an educational resource for postdoctoral fellows, for graduate students, for medical students, for college students, and for students who haven’t yet reached college.”