Ralph L. Smith Foundation Funds Breakthrough ALS Research at DU

Since baseball legend Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1939, the outlook for those with the disease has not changed dramatically. But thanks to research funding from the Ralph L. Smith Foundation, tremendous advances have been made at DU in just the past year. Biology professor Dan Linseman—along with three research students he couldn’t otherwise afford—have been able to complete one breakthrough study and begin another.

“It’s hugely important to be able to have students working with me,” Linseman said.

In the first project, Linseman and his team have identified and tested a nutraceutical compound, protocatechuic acid (PCA), that is extracted from purple berries such as blackberries and bilberries. They found that PCA improves muscle strength and increases survival of mice with ALS.

His students are completing a paper describing the benefits of PCA, which they hope will be the first evidence that the compound is effective for treatment of ALS. Their research could lead to possible future clinical trial of PCA in ALS patients.

Linseman’s second study—also funded in part by the Ralph L. Smith Foundation—aims to identify a blood biomarker that will allow doctors to diagnose ALS much sooner, and therefore begin treatment earlier than is currently possible. This research could extend and enhance the quality of life of patients.

“Watching a family member battle ALS or any other neurological disease makes you feel incredibly helpless,” said Suzanne Douthat Birkans, a manager of the family’s foundation, which is named after her great-grandfather. Birkans’ father, Edward Marsh Douthat III, died of ALS in 2007, and since then, the foundation has been supporting ALS research and awareness, among other causes.

“What Dan and his students are discovering will not only impact science but also will have a direct impact on the quality of life for ALS patients,” said Birkans. “His passion for his work, and for improving the patients’ journeys, makes it a simple choice to continue to support him.”

Since baseball legend Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1939, the outlook of the disease has not changed dramatically…

The Ralph L. Smith Foundation’s gifts to DU came about after Birkans, who lives in Denver, met Linseman at the Rocky Mountain ALS Association in Denver, where both served on the board.

Linseman has been at DU since 2006, initially under a joint appointment with the Veterans Administration, and as a full-time professor of biology in the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics since 2015. He now enjoys significant new resources associated with the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, where his lab is located.

Especially with the support of the Ralph L. Smith Foundation, Linseman is optimistic that his work will make a real difference. “One of my main goals in science is to make an impact on ALS patients,” he said. “We get tired of just saving mice. We want to move beyond that.”