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Burke Medical Research Institute Scientist Awarded Grant to Study Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Released July 17, 2012

WHITE PLAINS, NY – July 17, 2012 -- The Burke Medical Research Institute—the research entity of the Burke Rehabilitation Center—has been awarded a two-year, $150,000 scientific research grant to study Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The grant was awarded by the U.S - Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), whose goal is to support collaborative research projects between American and Israeli researchers. The grant, awarded in conjunction with researchers from Tel Aviv University will fund the creation of a methodology to study how neurons and muscle cells malfunction in ALS patients, causing axon degeneration and ultimately neuron cell deaths.

Approximately 5,500 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year, yet little is known about its mechanism or cause. ALS is a fast moving neurodegenerative disease affecting neurons in the cortex, brain stem and spinal cord. Most ALS sufferers die within five years of diagnosis, usually from respiratory distress or failure. Lou Gehrig lived for only two years after he was diagnosed with the disease. This short window makes this type of research particularly important to help understand the disease and ultimately look for ways to extend the life of those with ALS.

Spearheading the United States contingency is Dianna E. Willis, Ph.D., author of the grant and principal investigator of The Burke Medical Research Institute’s Pain Research Laboratory and assistant professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College. “We must gain a better understanding of what makes the neurons in patients with ALS different than those in their healthy counterparts,” Willis said, adding, “there may be specific differences in the cellular makeup of those with ALS and if so, our team hopes to identify them.”

This type of research is the building block for understanding how other diseases may work at the cellular level and could have implications for muscular dystrophy and other neurodegenerative diseases. According to Willis, “The grant is unique because it pairs researchers from different parts of the world, utilizing different areas of expertise for a common goal.”  Dr. Willis will be working with fellow researcher Dr. Eran Perlman from Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The grant was awarded to Willis and the Burke Medical Research Institute in conjunction with the Tel Aviv University after a rigorous scientific review process where only about 20 to 25 percent of the Life Science start-up grant applications were funded. According to Willis, “This type of grant is significant because it will allow us to build a matrix to better understand systems within the body. We hope to be able to extrapolate what we learn from this research to other areas of neurodegenerative disease.”

According to Rajiv R. Ratan, M.D., Ph.D., executive medical director of the Burke Medical Research Institute and professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, “We are both proud and excited about Dr. Willis’s research with ALS and on her international collaboration because it demonstrates that scientific rigor transcends geographic boundaries and unites scientists around the world with a common research goal.”

Funded by grants and private donations, Burke’s Medical Research Institute is involved in cutting edge basic, translational and clinical research, providing new knowledge that can become the basis for future rehabilitation therapies in the areas of stroke, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. The Institute has recently added new research laboratories in the areas of pain, vision restoration and motor recovery.

Burke Rehabilitation Hospital is a private, not-for-profit, acute rehabilitation hospital. Founded in 1915, it is the only hospital in Westchester County dedicated solely to rehabilitation medicine. Burke offers both inpatient and outpatient programs for those who have experienced a disabling illness, traumatic injury or joint replacement surgery. Burke is both an acute rehabilitation hospital and medical research center. Burke’s world renowned doctors and therapists provide state-of-the-art ­treatment, while its research scientists at the Burke Medical Research Institute explore the frontiers of neurological and rehabilitation medicine. All share the Burke mission to ensure that every patient makes the fullest possible recovery from illness or injury regardless of their ability to pay.

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