Her quest for cure is still on

Having moved to America 12 years ago for post-doctoral research, she continues her search for cure for a little known disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Nearly 2,00,000 people the world over suffer from ALS, which affects motor neurons in the brain, resulting in limb impairment. Jeyanthi Ramasubbu speaks with R. Sujatha, on her search for its cure.

SHE IS presently serving as director of pharmaceuticals with the Boston-based ALS-TDF (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — Therapy Development Foundation).

She is one of the five finalists for the Academic Scientist of the Year Award given by the Informa Life Sciences group. The other four are from MIT and Harvard University.

An alumnus of Stella Maris and Women's Christian College, Ms. Jeyanthi did her research at Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) where she completed Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1989. Her thesis was on using collagen and gelatine to deliver anticancer drugs to patients.

Collagen is a protein found in the skin and its use as medium, helps uniform release of the drug in the body. Though her thesis was published in international biomedical journals, it failed to evoke response in India. She left for America soon after for research. Over the years, she has worked on drugs for osteoporosis and assisted in making periodontal wafers to prevent gum disease. She moved from drug delivery to drug discovery after she joined ALS-TDF. Unlike in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or Huntington's diseases, ALS patients suffer from stroke-like symptoms. "The kidneys function. It is not as if one is dysfunctional entirely below the neck. The motor neurons get the wrong signal and multiply when they shouldn't," she says.

The cause of the disease is not known but there is only one drug to treat it. Neurologists are unable to diagnose ALS early enough to prevent further degeneration. Most people come for treatment only when the disease is in advanced stage, she says. The first signs of ALS are muscle twitching, cramps and difficulty in walking and holding objects. Muscles weaken and movement becomes difficult.

"First your right hand gets affected then the left, then the right and the left leg. Throat muscles are affected in some cases, making it difficult for the patient to swallow." In the final stages, the disease afflicts diaphragm muscles, leading to respiratory failure and death.

It is commonly known as Lou Gehrig, named after a well-known American baseball player who died of the disease in 1941. Athletes and sportsmen are susceptible. "It could be due to strengthening and training muscles. But we are not sure."

Ms. Jeyanthi's firm buys research articles on ALS from the Internet. Today the company has a large database on electronic format, which provides a platform for those afflicted to update the prescribed drugs.

She depends on published scientific material to eliminate time-consuming research. "A woman in Canada, who was put on a cocktail of three drugs for AIDS, has been cured of ALS."

But the going wasn't smooth, at least initially. Patients and caregivers who had set up support organisations helped scientists with funds. Patients and kin of those afflicted also did their bit. Even big pharmaceutical firms refused to entertain their requests for funds. Today 40 firms are involved in their project.

Research on cure for cancer and AIDS has received a lot of attention in comparison to ALS. "With less than $15 million, in three years we have had two hits. It was possible because of knowledge management. Usually it takes 12 years to develop a drug," she says.

Ms. Jeyanthi and her team tested more than 100 compounds, of which two will soon be put on clinical trial. The disease is prevalent in India too. "In Bangalore we know that a sizeable population is being treated for ALS. But despite sending several e-mails there has been no response from doctors there."

Currently on a sabbatical with her husband and daughters, Ms. Jeyanthi attributes her achievements to the support from her family.