New funding allows ALS researcher to expand search for treatment

UAlberta postdoctoral fellow awarded prestigious Banting Fellowship for research on ALS.

Katie Willis - 24 June 2020

A new fellowship will support the search for targets for therapeutic interventions in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

Abhishek Narayan, postdoctoral fellow in the University of Alberta’s Department of Physics, has received the prestigiousBanting Fellowship for his work on ALS. This two-year fellowship provides funding and support for Narayan’s continued research with biophysicist Michael Woodside, professor in the Department of Physics.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting 1 in 5000 people. ALS is fatal and currently has no cure. 

The disease, Woodside explained, is linked to the misfolding of a protein known as SOD1. Different mutations in SOD1 can lead to very different patient survival times, from less than one year to over a decade. "When you don't understand why something is misfolding, it becomes difficult to target therapeutic treatments,” explained Woodside. “So understanding where things are going wrong helps the targeting process become more rational rather than leaning on random screening.” 

Each year approximately 1,000 Canadians die from ALS. There are 3,000 Canadians currently living with the disease, and 80 per cent of patients die within two to five years of diagnosis, according to the ALS Society of Canada. 

“My research will use sensitive laser tweezers to examine single protein molecules at near-atomic resolution,” explained Narayan. “This will allow me to understand the specific sequence of steps involved in both correct folding and misfolding in extraordinary detail. I hope to identify the critical steps that relate to rapid onset of disease, thereby discovering the most effective target for developing drugs to treat ALS.” 

This project builds on past research on mapping protein misfolding at the molecular level in the Woodside lab. 

“The project will lead to an improved understanding of the molecular events that underlie misfolding of SOD1 in the context of ALS and should reveal targets for developing more effective therapeutics,” added Narayan.

In 2010, the Government of Canada established theBanting Postdoctoral Fellowship program to attract and develop the world's best and brightest post-doctoral researchers in Canada.

“Professor Woodside’s lab is one of the few places in the world and the only place in Canada where the proposed work can be successfully accomplished,” added Narayan. “The lab is home to custom-built, state-of-the-art optical tweezers that are specially designed for work on protein misfolding. Professor Woodside is a world leader in high-resolution SMFS (Single-molecule Force Spectroscopy), developing instrumentation, assays, and analytical techniques. He has significantly advanced the field through resolution and sensitivity improvements, new ways to measure folding pathways and energy landscapes, and new types of measurement and analysis.”