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Dan Linseman's research focuses on finding more effective treatments for ALS.

Dan Linseman

Dan Linseman is at war.

His enemy unleashes nearly unthinkable horror on its victims. Imagine slowly losing control of your muscles. Eventually you need a cane just to walk from your living room to your kitchen. Then, a few months later, you’re wheelchair bound. Within a few weeks, you can’t talk. Months later, you can’t swallow or even breathe on your own.

You have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Lou Gehrig’s disease — the devastating neuromuscular disease that slowly robs you of your physical humanity. You’re one of about 6,000 people every year who are diagnosed with the disease. You’ll likely die within five years.

And the best medicine on the market can only prolong your life (or agony) by about three months.

But Linseman, a researcher with the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the biomedical research organization at the University of Denver, is a determined warrior who’s been looking for more effective ways to combat the disease for four years.

This spring it appears he may have wounded his enemy. His weapon was a whey protein supplement that seems to delay the onset of ALS in lab mice. Linseman is working to improve the grip strength in mice — a sign, he says, of how well the muscles in their hind legs work.

Linseman measures that grip strength by seeing how long mice can cling, upside down, to wire mesh. He says mice with ALS start to lose their ability to cling to the mesh at around 90 days.

After he gave ALS-infected mice the whey, he found they were able to hold on to the mesh significantly longer than those without the whey. In fact, at 115 days, the mice with whey were still holding on for 10 seconds.

“It’s hard to draw conclusions in how this will translate to people with ALS, but we’re probably preserving skeletal muscle strength, and that would hopefully translate into better quality of life for ALS patients,” Linseman says. “It looks like it’s delaying their loss of grip strength.”

Linseman presented the findings at a recent conference in Keystone, Colo., and says he received a good response from attendees. “People are interested in it,” he says.

He plans to submit a paper of his research to the Journal of Neuroscience. “I think it has a decent shot [at getting published]. All the data together are pretty compelling.”

The only downside is the whey doesn’t appear to increase survival in the lab mice. Linseman says that’s his next battle. He plans to start a new study in July that will combine the whey with other compounds. One of those compounds comes from strawberries and has antioxidants that seem to protect neurons — a hope for prolonging life along with better muscle control.

“Simply prolonging life isn’t what we’re after, that’s not what we want,” Linseman says. “We want to improve the quality of their lives. So we’ll be looking for combinations that may work together.”

He says it’ll be six months before he’ll know findings from that study.

The time it takes to learn what works and what doesn’t can be difficult to take for researchers and, of course, ALS sufferers and their families.

Linseman recalls a story from last year when he spoke to local ALS group.

“I had a lady come up after the talk and ask me if there would be a cure anytime soon,” Linseman says. “She told me her husband had ALS and wanted to know if it would be within the next year. I tried my best not to be too negative, but I told her it might be within a decade. She just cringed and said, ‘We don’t have that kind of time.’”

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