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For CVM Professor ALS Support Goes Beyond
the Bucket Challenge

The recent ice bucket challenge that went viral on social media not only raised awareness of the neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it also raised more than $107 million in donations for the ALS Association. Among the many good sports at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine who cheerfully subjected themselves to an ice water bath was Professor Joan Coates, DVM. A veterinary neurologist and neurosurgeon, Coates has devoted more than 15 years to researching degenerative myelopathy (DM), a neurological condition that affects dogs. She was principal investigator of the team that determined the same genetic mutation that causes DM in dogs causes some forms of ALS in people.

Because most people choose euthanasia when their dog is stricken with DM, veterinary researchers had not seen the full spectrum of the disease in its end stages to note the similarity to symptoms such as paralysis and respiratory failure in late-stage ALS.

“When I began working with dogs with DM, we didn’t know there was an ALS connection. The discovery of this mutation in the SOD1 gene allowed us to know the human correlate of this disease,” Coates said. Since the discovery of the SOD1 gene mutation, Coates and her collaborators have worked closely with ALS researchers on a pilot study of a potential pharmacologic therapy, research that the ALS Association is helping to fund.

Coates said part of the reason she wanted to support the ALS Association by participating in the ice bucket challenge was because the organization has generously sponsored her DM research, and to bring awareness of ALS. Coates is also part of another team working to raise money for research to develop therapies to treat and cure ALS.  Before the ice bucket challenge became a social media sensation, Coates, her colleague Dr. Teresa Lever, an assistant professor in the MU School of Health Professions, and second-year veterinary student Shelby Mancini, who has been studying DM as part of a Veterinary Research Scholars Program project, began working together to coordinate a fundraising walk for ALS. The walk is being organized in honor of Alan Allert, DVM, a former College of Veterinary Medicine instructor who succumbed to ALS earlier this year.

“When I was a veterinary student at MU, Dr. Allert was one of my professors and taught cardiovascular pharmacology,” Coates noted. “He had a wonderful teaching style and really worked at connecting with all the students in the class.”

In 2009, Allert became the executive director at the Central Missouri Humane Society and was instrumental in establishing a cooperative agreement with the CVM that allowed veterinary students to spay and neuter shelter animals. He also worked with college faculty on other programs, including “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound,” and a study in which armed forces veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder teach dogs from CMHS basic obedience skills.

From the initial team of three, the Mizzou CVM team now has 55 members on its roster who will take part in the Columbia Walk to Defeat ALS in Allert’s memory. The walk takes place at 1 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 6 at Stephens Lake Park.

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Last Update: February 29, 2012