Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and collaborators have identified mutations in several new genes that might be associated with the development of spontaneously occurring cases of the neurodegenerative disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the progressive, fatal condition, in which the motor neurons that control movement and breathing gradually cease to function, has no cure. Although researchers know of some mutations associated with inherited forms of ALS, the majority of patients have no family history of the disease, and there are few clues as to its cause. The Stanford researchers compared the DNA sequences of 47 patients who have the spontaneous form of the disease, known as sporadic ALS, with those of their unaffected parents. The goal was to identify new mutations that were present in the patient but not in either parent that may have contributed to disease development. Several suspects are mutations in genes that encode chromatin regulators - cellular proteins that govern how DNA is packed into the nucleus of a cell and how it is accessed when genes are expressed. Protein members of one these chromatin-regulatory complexes have recently been shown to play roles in normal development and some forms of cancer. "The more we know about the genetic causes of the disorder, the greater insight we will have as to possible therapeutic targets," said Aaron Gitler, Ph.D., associate professor of genetics. "Until now, researchers have primarily relied upon large families with many cases of inherited ALS and attempted to pinpoint genetic regions that seem to occur only in patients. But more than 90 percent of ALS cases are sporadic, and many of the genes involved in these cases are unknown." Dr.
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