Thursday, April 11, 2013

Physicist Hawking visits CIRM-funded lab working on ALS therapy

Clive Svendsen gives Stephen Hawking a tour of his Cedars-Sinai lab. (Photo: Cedars-Sinai, Eric Reed)
Stephen Hawking’s most famous work involves black holes in the universe, but it became clear this morning that when he appears anywhere to speak, it is the opposite of a black hole. He visited the lab of a CIRM-funded team at Cedars-Sinai Tuesday and yesterday morning our news feed had stories about the visit that appeared in 227 news outlets from coast to coast in the U.S. and in a couple other continents. This morning 80 more news outlets ran the story.

He visited the program headed by Robert Baloh that is researching possible therapies for ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which Hawking has suffered from for 50 years. Within that Cedar’s group CIRM funds a team led by Clive Svendsen that plans to genetically modify nerve stem cells to produce a protein that seems to be able to protect nerves from further damage by the disease. They hope to begin a trial with the therapy within the next couple years. You can read about that effort and other work CIRM funds on ALS here.

The team decided to invite Hawking at the suggestion of one of the hospital’s patients who had been a student of his in Cambridge, U.K. Hawking is a very uncommon ALS patient; surviving 50 years with the disease when five to 10 years is much more the norm. CIRM board chair Jonathan Thomas was at Cedars for the lab tour and found the physicist’s tenacious ability to pursue his career despite the disease inspiring.
It was great to see his level of engagement with the scientists during the lab tour. The discussion of reprogrammed stem cells, or iPS cells, and how they are being used to model ALS in the lab seemed particularly compelling to him.
Most of the stories that ran about the tour were from the Associated Press. Here is one of the AP pickups in

My favorite quote was from a section when Hawking was discussing space exploration and advised the people there to look up to the stars and stay curious. He added:
However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

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