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Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): Evolving Science For a Fatal Disease

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Nov 17, 2021.

ALS: What's in a Name?

Unlike breast cancer or heart disease that garner massive amounts of fund-raising through their colorful and well-supported campaigns, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is not as well-known.

  • ALS is a devastating neurodegenerative (nerve) disease still without a cure.
  • ALS leads to a slow degeneration of nerve cells that control muscle movements and result in loss of muscle control and eventual breathing.
  • As many as 30,000 Americans may currently be affected by ALS, with 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

In 2014, a massive "Ice Bucket Challenge" and a Hollywood movie brought attention to the disease, but, (as with many disease awareness campaigns) things have now quieted down. So what is the current status of ALS, and what advances are on the horizon?

ALS: Six Fast Facts

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, named after a famous American baseball legend who died of ALS complications in 1941.
  • ALS is a fatal disease without a cure. The exact cause of ALS is not known, although genetics may play a part in some patients. At this time, it is not possible to prevent ALS.
  • ALS leads to the death of nerve cells in the brain that control voluntary movement, like swallowing, muscle movement, speech, and breathing.
  • ALS plays no favorites - it can strike anyone, but is most common in whites, males, and people over the age of 60.
  • Most people with ALS maintain vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. However, weakness, muscle wasting, paralysis, and loss of lung function eventually occur.
  • In 2014, the popular "Ice Bucket Challenge" took the nation by storm to raise awareness and money for ALS research. Since the Ice Bucket Challenge, The ALS Association has committed millions of dollars toward its mission and worldwide research into treatments and a cure.

What Causes ALS?

The exact causes of ALS are not known but are under active research.

In about 5% to 10% of cases it runs in families and may be hereditary. In familial ALS, there is a 50% chance each offspring will inherit the gene mutation and may develop the disease. Mutations in the gene for the enzymes superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1) or copper zinc superoxide dismutase may occur in familial cases, but this is a small number of people. The remaining 90% to 95% of cases have no clearly defined cause. Progress is being made to identify other specific gene mutations.

Contributing factors may include:

  • Autoimmune disease: In ALS, the body attacks its own nerves.
  • Chemical imbalance: Too much glutamate, a chemical that initiates nerve signals, may cause the motor neurons to die.
  • Frequent chemical exposure: Exposure to chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides used in lawn care; also men who serve in the military seem to be at greater risk.
  • Genetics: Your risk is greater if a family member has thyroid disease or an autoimmune disease.

ALS Treatments: Rilutek and Tiglutik

Most people with ALS become paralyzed and die from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years from when the symptoms first appear, so a treatment is important. At this time, only two medications are approved by the FDA for treatment of ALS. These include riluzole (Rilutek, Tiglutik, Exservan) and edaravone (Radicava).

Learn more: What is the difference between Rilutek, Tiglutik and Exservan?

In 1995, the FDA approved the first treatment for ALS known as Rilutek (riluzole). Rilutek comes as an oral 50 mg tablet and is normally taken twice a day. Rilutek should be taken at least one hour before or 2 hours after a meal.

  • Riluzole blocks the nerve cell messenger glutamate, an amino acid that sends messages from your brain to your muscles. People with ALS may have very high levels of glutamate, which can damage these nerve cells.

Other dose forms of riluzole are also avaialble:

  • In 2018, a thickened oral suspension form of riluzole, known as Tiglutik was FDA-approved. The thickened formulation helps patients overcome the challenges of disease-related dysphagia (difficult swallowing) in ALS.
  • In 2019, Exservan (riluzole) Oral Film from Aquestive Therapeutics was approved for the treatment of ALS. Exservan is a 50 mg orally dissolving film.

The most common side effects include asthenia (weakness), nausea, dizziness, decreased lung function, and stomach pain. Riluzole is not a cure for ALS, and has not improved muscle strength or neurological function, but may delay disease progression and extend survival for several months, as shown in studies.

ALS Treatments: Radicava

In May 2017, the first new drug for ALS in over 20 years, known as Radicava (edaravone), was approved.

Radicava (edaravone) works by relieving the effects of oxidative stress, which may be related to the death of motor neurons (nerve cells) in people with ALS. Keeping motor neurons healthy may help to preserve muscle function.

Dosage:

  • Radicava is given initially as a 60 milligram (mg) intravenous (IV) infusion over a 60-minute period daily for 14 days, followed by a 14-day drug-free period.
  • Subsequent treatment cycles are as follows: 60 mg once a day as an IV infusion for 10 days out of a 14-day period, followed by a 14-day drug-free period.
  • Upon the first observation of any signs or symptoms of a hypersensitivity reaction, promptly discontinue the infusion.

In studies after 24 weeks, individuals receiving Radicava declined less in assessment of daily functioning compared to placebo. Common side effects reported in clinical trials were bruising and gait disturbance. Radicava may slow down the progression of ALS, but has not been shown to improve day-to-day symptoms in patients.

What's on the ALS Horizon?

MN-166 (ibudilast) is an investigational drug under research by MediciNova for use in ALS. Ibudilast is an oral phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitor and macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) blocker that suppresses inflammatory chemicals.

Studies are evaluating several efficacy endpoints including functional activity (ALSFRS-R), respiratory function, muscle strength, and non-invasive ventilation utilization in addition to monitoring the safety and tolerability of MN-166 (ibudilast) when administered in subjects with ALS.

Phase 3 trials are ongoing in patients living with ALS. It is also currently fast-tracked with the FDA.

Ibudilast's anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective actions are being studied in ALS and other medical conditions, including:

  • progressive multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • degenerative cervical myopathy
  • COVID-19
  • substance abuse and addiction
  • chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain
  • glioblastoma.

Clinical Trials: An Option for You?

There are close to 400 ALS clinical trials ongoing in the US. Patients can review clinical trials that are currently enrolling, and speak to their doctor if interested in learning more about joining a clinical trial.

  • Using a search tool provided by the ALS Association, current trials can be viewed and patients can contact their doctor for further discussion to determine if joining a trial might be a good option.
  • Patients and caregivers can also search the Clinical Trials.gov website for "Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis."

Several drugs that have already been FDA-approved for other conditions are showing promise and are actively being research for ALS. These include drugs such as:

Examples of other investigational medications under study that are currently enrolling participants include:

One Disease: Many Needs

Ongoing awareness and education are key to treatment discoveries and a cure for ALS. That's where we all come in, whether it be ALS, pancreatic cancer, Parkinson's disease or any other disease without a cure.

Pick one close to your heart, and continue your campaign individually with community fund-raising, disease awareness campaigns, and partnering with national associations such as the ALS Association.

  • Would you like to stay more up-to-date on the latest news, research and treatments for ALS?
  • Consider joining the Drugs.com Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Support Group.
  • Here you can ask questions, share ideas, and stay up-to-date with the latest news and studies.

Finished: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): Evolving Science For a Fatal Disease

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