DALLAS (CBS.COM) – ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is one of the most debilitating and deadliest neurological diseases out there. However, groundbreaking research around the country, including in North Texas, is providing new clues and hope of a cure – not only for ALS, but other diseases as well.
For Peter Warlick, the journey started almost exactly three years ago, with a simple observation that turned his life upside down.
“I noticed I was having some movement in my legs, twitching of muscles,” says Warlick, Vice President – Corporate Development of American Airlines. “Ultimately, I was diagnosed in August of 2015 with ALS.”
The airline executive, husband, and father of two was 50 years old and facing a fatal disease with no cure.
“I started to really contemplate, ‘What can I do?’ And I began to do a lot of research into different organizations in the United States that are focused on ALS,” says Warlick.
He landed on Answer ALS, a research program and clinical trial founded after former NFL player Steve Gleason’s own ALS diagnosis. Part of what drew Warlick is that the research is collaborative, meaning top research institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Mass General, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and others are working together. The data they compile is then available to researchers all over the world.
“We’re working across many different institutions to attack the same question, and the question is, what causes ALS?,” says Dr. Clive Svendsen, the Co-Director of Answer ALS and the Kerry and Simone Vickar Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Regenerative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “To be frank, we don’t know.”
Dr. Svendsen says a revolutionary technique is providing promise.
“We’re making what are called motor neurons,” he says. “Those are the neurons that die and make you paralyzed. By creating patients’ motor neurons, we can understand more about what causes the disease.”
They are hoping to have a thousand patients enrolled in the ongoing research trial by the end of the year. Answer ALS is generating approximately 6 billion data points for each participant. Dr. Daragh Heitzman with Dallas’ Texas Neurology, which recently joined the research trial, says that volume is unprecedented.
“This is the biggest, most comprehensive ALS basic science and clinical research study ever done,” says Dr. Heitzman, “To be part of this is just such an honor.”
It could also mean answers for other diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed we can find something to slow down the progression of the disease or even cure it using this technology,” says Dr. Svendsen. “Yes, it will have an impact on other neurodegenerative diseases.”
For Peter Warlick, parlaying fear into funds was the best way to cope. So, in 2016, he started Warlick’s Warriors, also known as Aviators Against ALS. His company, American Airlines, immediately contributed $1 million dollars.
“I was just struck by the strength he had, and his optimism, not so much about perhaps what it might mean for him but what he could do for others,” says Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines.
They are on track to surpass their $5 million goal by the end of the year. Nearly 25 companies, including Boeing, Fed Ex and even American’s competitor United Airlines have contributed. It’s money that Warlick believes will change history.
“In a way, for me, there’s some hope. But for others, I think there’s a lot of hope that the future will be different than what the past has been,” Warlick says.