DANVILLE, Pa. — A small tropical fish, the curiosity of a Geisinger research scientist and Bucknell University students, has created the perfect storm of sorts in an attempt to find a cure for one of the world’s most devastating neurological diseases.

On initial glance, there may not be much in common between zebrafish, Dr. Glenn S. Gerhard, and a trio of Bucknell biomedical engineering students. Yet they’re each playing a critical role in clearing a major roadblock in the search for a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease.

Lou Gehrig's disease -- or ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) — is a fatal neurodegenerative condition that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. As many as 20,000 Americans suffer from ALS and about 5,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Aging-related disease
It’s an aging-related disease that has long fascinated Gerhard, a staff scientist in Geisinger’s Weis Center for Research.

Gerhard believes that the cure for the disease — or at least a more viable treatment option — can be found in the right mix of the millions of drugs and drug compounds that have been developed in laboratories across the world.

“There are so many different compounds but you don’t know which ones to test,” Gerhard says. “We need bioengineering help to automate this process.”

Enter Bucknell
That’s why Gerhard turned to the zebrafish and Joseph Tranquillo, assistant professor of biomedical and electrical engineering at Bucknell, and students Erica Andreozzi, Meredith Kalman, and Emily Thiel.

Several years ago, Gerhard started using the zebrafish, which can be easily bred, and can exhibit the disease’s effects at an accelerated rate.

Yet the instruments needed to use these small and inexpensive fish for finding new drugs have not yet been brought to market.

Working prototype
The students have developed a working prototype screening plate that allows scientists to quickly expose zebrafish to ALS and mix chemicals together.

What once took weeks or months to screen thousands of potential cure-carrying chemical solutions may soon take days, and with far fewer research staff involved. A streamlined screening process will free up precious resources in the lab, Gerhard says.

The Bucknell students worked throughout the spring semester to improve on their design.

Open-ended experiences
“In their first three years, Bucknell biomedical engineering students compile an excellent set of technical and design skills through a number of open-ended experiences,” Tranquillo says. “But they truly become engineers in their senior year when they meet with a medical professional, identify a real problem and spend a year solving that problem. The rich and educational interactions between Dr. Gerhard, Erica, Meredith and Emily were extraordinary to witness. ”

Geisinger Ventures, the health system’s corporate development arm, arranged the partnership between Gerhard and the Bucknell team.

Ventures is now seeking a corporate partner willing to license the invention for production and distribution.

Innovative ideas
Geisinger Ventures nurtures innovative ideas, licenses and brings to market intellectual property, develops business plans, and catalyzes growth of for-profit companies. Gerhard’s work fits perfectly into Geisinger Ventures’ mission, says director Bryan Allinson.

“Ventures-worthy ideas generally are focused on a better way to use a device, a piece of equipment or a process,” Allinson says. “The work with zebrafish has the potential to identify therapeutics that could help the thousands of people who suffer from ALS.”

In the disease’s early stage, symptoms may be so hard to detect that the disease gets overlooked. But by the end stages of the disease, the patients are totally paralyzed.

“ALS is a terrible disease,” Gerhard says. “Your brain is fine but your body and your muscles just waste away.”

Contact: Office of Communications

Posted July 31, 2007

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