Health

Feng Zhang applies his engineering background to problems in human health.

Feng Zhang applies his engineering background to problems in human health.

Genome editing is hot—especially at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Through a special two-day Faculty Forum Online, you can learn how a new gene editing process may transform genetic engineering and open new paths to fight disease. The Broad’s Genome Engineering 3.0 Workshop is available to MIT alumni free via webcast on May 8‒9.

The workshop is organized by Feng Zhang, who won a 2014 patent for the CRISPR-Cas9 method, and his lab at the Broad Institute. Zhang is the W.M. Keck Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering and a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Broad Institute. While in graduate school at Stanford, he co-developed a revolutionary technology called optogenetics, now used by neuroscientists worldwide, and he used this and other tools to study animal models of depression and schizophrenia. His work at the Broad focuses on development of synthetic biology tools, like the CRISPR-Cas9 method, to study neuropsychiatric disease. Visit his McGovern page to view terrific short videos on his work and genome editing.

The CRISPR system has the potential to radically alter the current understanding of genetic engineering and how it could be applied to the treatment of diseases. In essence, it is a search-and-replace method for altering DNA.

Here’s how the Broad describes this breakthrough:

CRISPRs (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) have been harnessed as genome-editing tools in a wide range of species. The engineered CRISPR-Cas9 system allows researchers to mutate or change the expression of genes in living cells. The family of Cas9 nucleases—the centerpiece of this genome-editing system—recognizes DNA targets in complex with RNA guides. Researchers can now use these tools to home in on specific genes within the genome and cut the DNA at those precise targets. The cuts modify the activity of the targeted genes, allowing researchers to study the genes’ function.

Want to know more?

Register today for the May 8-9 Faculty Forum Online to listen to keynotes by MIT faculty and leading researchers, technical talks, and lively debates about the future of biotechnology, ethics, intellectual property, and academia vs. industry.

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Cathy Kenworthy, Interactive Health

Cathy Kenworthy SM ’91

Cathy Kenworthy has always sought challenging problems—as a McKinsey management consultant; in executive roles at GE, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase; and even at leisure. She’s a self-described “fanatic for finding the hardest sudokus and crossword puzzles.”

Today, as CEO of Interactive Health, she leads an organization that’s addressing an especially knotty challenge: high costs and mediocre outcomes in the U.S. health-care system.

Her work doesn’t involve new drugs or diagnostic equipment but, as she puts it, “simple principles broadly applied” to employees of more than 2,000 client companies. “We get hired to help employees be healthier through preventive care,” she explains.

Nutrition, activity level, and tobacco use are three areas of emphasis. “It’s so simple, but so profound,” says Kenworthy. “One area where we can generate tremendous impact is in the prevention of diabetes, which is a major life-altering event. You never stop being diabetic: it affects your longevity, it complicates many other medical conditions, and treatment costs a minimum of $20,000 annually.”

Interactive Health’s data analytics group, which Kenworthy built in her previous COO role, can now show the impact of the company’s work with pre-diabetics through counseling, coaching, and goal setting: 40 percent of them returned to normal health within one year.

“That’s a gigantic number, off the charts in any clinical sense,” she says. “And it’s one of the best things you can do for someone.”

Kenworthy originally planned to apply that type of compassionate problem solving as a doctor. During her sophomore year at Georgetown University, she was accepted to the university’s medical school, but after working in an emergency room and reflecting on her goals, she chose to major in chemistry and mathematics. She graduated in 1987 and went to work in finance.

At the Sloan School, Kenworthy gained insight from her classmates, who came from diverse lines of work and corners of the world. “I’d come from Wall Street with a total focus on financial engineering,” she says. “Sloan helped me consider the many ways to think about the topic of business.”

Kenworthy and her husband, William, are recent transplants to the Chicago area and have three teenage sons. They enjoy cooking together and are avid hikers, skiers, and walkers.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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NinaTandon, EpiBone

Tissue-engineered bone, EpiBone

Bone-related surgeries, undertaken by nearly one million patients in the US each year, can fail due to unsuccessful integration of prosthetic or donor bone implants. Nina Tandon SM ’06 is working to solve this problem by growing human bone from the cells of the patient.

Tandon, CEO of EpiBone, leads the New York City-based company that is the first to grow human bones from stem cells, delivering custom-made bones. Not only are the bones more likely to integrate into the body because they are living, compatible bone, but also because they are created based on a CT scan of the target area and are made to fit exactly. “What we’re really proposing is a different view of the body,” says Tandon. “To view it as a renewable resource of stem cells that can regenerate new parts as you need them.”

Nina Tandon, EpiBone

Nina Tandon SM ’06 (right) in the lab at EpiBone

Tandon, who co-founded the EpiBone project two years ago, has spent the greater part of the past 10 years studying and testing bone and organ regrowth—and it all started at MIT.

As a graduate student studying bioelectrical engineering, Tandon did a research rotation with world-renowned professor and tissue engineering research scientist Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.

“It was through the work I did at MIT with Gordana that I realized the power of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine and the way it would change medicine forever,” says Tandon. “By engineering human tissue and cells from their own human stem cells, we can change the way medicine is done. Whether it’s organ donation or drug testing, we can make the medicine fit the individuals.”

At EpiBone, Tandon works every day in the lab to perfect their method. With the technology in place, they have successfully grown bone and are in the testing stages. With one pilot study completed and another to begin this spring, they hope to be done with pre-clinical trials in the next three years and get on the path of FDA approval to bring their technology to market.

“I can’t wait for the day when someone who needs a transplant doesn’t have to wait on a list,” says Tandon. “And I’m hoping our research can get us one step closer to that day.”

A Fulbright Scholar, Tandon completed her PhD and an MBA at Columbia University. She is a senior TED fellow and co-author of Super Cells: Building with Biology, a book that explores the new frontier of biotech. Tandon was recently named one of CNN’s “7 ‘tech superheroes’ to watch in 2015.

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William Linder

Bill Linder SM ’65, PhD ’68 has completed more than a dozen Ironman races.

In 1962, an MIT professor visited the graduate class of Bill Linder SM ’65, PhD ’68 graduate class at the industrial design school he was attending in Germany after leaving the U.S. Army. Linder, who had already earned a degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1956, was so impressed with the professor that he transferred to MIT to study civil and environmental engineering. The decision would profoundly shape his life both personally and professionally.

At MIT, Linder and his classmates worked on solving engineering issues with computers, a very new idea at the time. “It was civil engineering, but really, they were computer projects,” he says. “That was very remarkable.”

After graduating, Linder, who grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, wanted to return home and teach at the University of South Carolina. Soon he was hired as the university’s first full-time computer science professor. After 12 years on the faculty, he went on to serve as a county treasurer, a computer consultant, and an adjunct professor before retiring in 2002, eager to pursue his new passion: Ironman competitions.

Ironman races consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. To date, Linder has completed more than a dozen Ironman races, including two Ironman World Championships, the race held annually in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. When he competed in it last year, he was one of just five participants 80 or older. Unfortunately, a strong headwind derailed Linder and his fellow octogenarians. None of them finished the swim and bike portions within 10 hours and 30 minutes of starting, which would have qualified them to advance to the run. The wind was so strong Linder was sometimes riding his bike in his lowest gear, going only 4 or 5 m.p.h.

Years ago, he didn’t have to worry about finishing in time; he simply exerted all his energy and usually had hours to spare. But as he has aged, his slower pace has erased those extra hours. “There’s not much slack anymore,” he says.

Linder, however, remains undeterred. Now 81, he wants to become the oldest finisher of the Ironman World Championship. To do that, he will have to complete the race as an 82-year old next fall. “No one thought this was possible, that older people could do the Ironman. I want to keep it up as long as I can,” he says.

If he’s not swimming, biking, or running, Linder is probably at home in Columbia with Lynne, his wife of 47 years, or spoiling their three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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Brint Markle, AvaTech, MIT Alumnus

Photo credit: Philipp Becker

An increase in avalanche deaths has paralleled the rise in recreational backcountry activities in recent decades. Although avalanches can happen unexpectedly, many of the warning signs can be detected. Key risk factors include recent rain or snowfall, visible cracking and sounds of shifting terrain, extreme temperature changes, and weak layers of snow in the snowpack. These weak layers can often cause an avalanche when no other signs are present and they are the most difficult to detect with basic manual tests, such as digging snow pits and feeling layers, which offer only subjective insight.

After Brint Markle MBA ’14 had a close call in 2010 while skiing with friends in Switzerland, he wanted to know much more than the surface characteristics of snow. With this goal in mind, he enrolled in the Sloan School of Management.

SP1 Probe, AvaTech

The SP1 Probe, created by MIT alumni

While at MIT, Markle teamed up with Jim Christian SM ’14 and Sam Whittemore ’14 to form AvaTech, a company focused on proactive avalanche safety that starts with a better understanding of snow. Their first product is the SP1 probe, which was launched in September and was recognized as a National Geographic Gear of the Year for 2014 and one of the Top 100 Innovations of the Year by Popular Science. The probe is inserted into snowpack and reads the characteristics of the layers through numerous sensors—determining hardness, resistance, slope angle, aspect, GPS orientation, and ultimately detecting weak layers that could cause slides. Along with the SP1 probe, they also launched AvaNet, a cloud platform that helps backcountry travelers share critical snowpack and avalanche safety data all across the world.

The product is being marketed to professionals and forecasters, helping to make their evaluations of snow safety more informed. “The snowpack is really complex,” says Whittemore, “and we want the SP1 to make it much easier for the people out there in the backcountry to assess how the snow changes in space and time.”

Brint Markle, AvaTech, SP 1 Probe, Himalayas

Markle (right) tests the SP1 in the Himalayas, Feb. 2015. Photo credit: Brennan Lagasse.

Today Markle, who is AvaTech’s CEO, Christian, the lead product designer, and Whittemore, the lead engineer, are based in Park City, Utah, the most popular backcountry locale in the US. From there, they travel around the world demonstrating their product. For much of February, Markle has been working with the SP1 and AvaNet in the Alps and the Himalayas. “We’ve spent the last two years validating our technology with leading industry professionals,” says Markle. “Today, we have more than 400 organizations from 35 countries sharing data on the platform, spanning ski patrol, guiding companies, forecast centers, departments of transportation, snow scientists, and other snow professionals.”

Up to this point, most research and development in the avalanche field has been focused on equipment and devices to save individuals already caught in an avalanche, but a more technical understanding of avalanche prevention could truly revolutionize the industry.

Originally, the vision of the company was focused on developing the first proactive avalanche safety technology in the world, says Markle. But they have come to realize that the SP1 is the cornerstone of a much broader information sharing platform. “We talk about building a global mountain community that can share information in real time to benefit the safety of all mountain travelers. That to us, is extremely powerful.”

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FitBark_Romero_01

Canine Advisory Board member Romero models the device. Photo: FitBark

When activity trackers and wearable devices like Fitbit first became popular, many people jumped at the chance to measure their steps, quality of sleep, and calories burned. Davide Rossi MBA ’10, however, wondered how these devices could help him care for his dog. “I thought if it can be helpful for me, of course, it can be even more helpful for somebody who doesn’t talk,” Rossi remembers.

This idea compelled him to create FitBark, a wearable activity tracker for dogs. Like human devices, FitBark tracks time moving, at rest, and general behavior patterns, but the dog data is used in different ways. “The activity data set can tell you a lot more than just counting steps. You can see what kind of day your dog is having,” Rossi explains.

FitBark-Activity-Monitor-and-Mobile-App

FitBark works in connection with your smartphone. Photo: FitBark

The FitBark device, which snaps onto a dog’s collar, tracks your dog around the clock and transmits data to a smartphone app when it is in range of the FitBark. The data each FitBark device collects is compared to a baseline for your dog and other dogs of similar breeds and ages. From this information, Rossi says, you can see if your dog needs more exercise, is feeling sick, or is acting differently. “It’s possible to identify how your dog is reacting to a new product or drug or even if your dog has a medical problem,” he says.

Outside of tracking the health of your dog, Rossi says that the social aspect of the FitBark excites him most. “Social means having an app where I, my sister, my wife, and my vet can all comment and collaborate on hard data around the health of my dog,” he says.

Rossi says he has seen interest in FitBark from individual dog owners, doggie daycares, and pet supply stores. For now FitBark is marketed for dogs, but that doesn’t mean other pet owners aren’t taking note, “I’ve received requests for cats, bunnies, horses, cows, falcons, chickens, and for penguins,” Rossi laughs. “The device is ideally for dogs, but other pet owners may see benefits,” he says.

FitBark will be an exhibitor at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week. Sadly, no dogs are allowed on the show floor.

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What’s one thing MIT students can do to increase their well-being this winter break? Sleep, according to Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Affective Computing, Rosalind Picard SM ’86, ScD ’91. Picard is an instructor for MAS S63 Tools for Well Being, a course launched this past fall with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation aimed at better understanding how individuals can be healthier and happier.

“The course is our way to start learning about our health,” explains Picard. She says providing a semester-long credit course is important for students who need to make their time commitments count.  “People are interested in so much,” she says. “At MIT you have so much you have to do, you often only do what you have to do rather than you want to do.”

Tools for Well Being—a Media Arts and Sciences course—offers weekly lectures from researchers and experts on a range of topics including diet and nutrition, mental health, workplace well-being, and cognitive health. Another benefit is that the Wednesday lectures, on topics ranging from How to Measure Stress, Engagement, and Positive Affect to the Science of Workplace Fitness, are open to the public.

Picard recommends sleep as a first-step to wellbeing.

Picard recommends sleep as a first-step to well-being.

“This is the whole picture of well-being. It’s like a resilience guide. If you are going to drive yourself to maximum performance, what do you need to know?” she says.

The course—open to graduate and undergraduate students—also focuses on technology as it relates to well-being. Some class speakers have experience building and using technology for well-being—like Kevin Slavin Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab who previously worked in game development. The course culminates in a final project that requires students to design and prototype a tool for well-being. Past projects included a smart coupon model that would provide users with tailored coupons for healthy options and an app that assists in creating conversations to solve interpersonal conflicts at work.

Picard would like to see a smaller course focused on well-being as a requirement for undergrads, much like physical education is required.  She relates that though many courses may be interesting to students, taking courses outside of those required proves difficult for many.

“Students need to be as intelligent about their basic functioning as they are about bio and math. You must know how to take care of your own health so you can push yourself for four years and emerge strong and resilient,” she says.

A first step to increase that understanding is examining your sleep patterns, Picard says. As a recommendation to all students, the winter break is a great time to do this.

“Pay attention to how much sleep your body needs—that’s your natural rhythm. Figure out how to get closer to that when you get back to school,” she says.

Recorded lectures from Tools for Well Being are available to everyone.

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Grove Labs Towers

Grove Lab hopes its towers with become home centerpieces.

Every Thursday, the team at Grove Labs eats the fruits of their labor. They call it a Grove-grown lunch.

“From some of our prototypes, we’ve harvested a huge bowl of salad for our weekly team meetings,” said co-founder and CEO Gabe Blanchet ’13 of his company’s indoor aquaponic gardens, which grow fruits and vegetables and raise fish.

He and co-founder Jamie Byron ’13 launched Grove Labs over a year ago, but the idea really started  when they roomed together in the MIT chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity. Byron built an aquaponics prototype in their room, and the pair started harvesting lettuce, peas, and kale.

“I think we inspired people even with that janckety first fraternity room prototype that growing your own food and maintaining your own ecosystem where you live is really cool,” said Blanchet.

Grove has transformed that prototype into bookshelf-like wooden towers designed to be home centerpieces. The shelves house an aquarium and gardens capable of growing everything from salad greens to tomatoes at a rate 20-40 percent faster than conventional farming and using 80-90 percent less water.

A piping system allows water to flow from the aquarium to clay pebble grow beds. The beds are home to healthy bacteria that convert ammonia in the fish waste into nitrate, a natural plant fertilizer. As the plant roots absorb these nutrients, they clean the water that flows back to the fish tank. LED lights give plants the light they need and mimic the patterns of the sun—rosy in the morning, blue at noon, and golden at dusk.

Grove mock up

Mock up of how a Grove will look in the home.

The Grove staff, nearly half of whom are recent MIT graduates, are also launching a smart phone app to monitor temperature, water level, power usage, and the livelihood of a customers’ particular plants. Blanchet jokes the app “gives you a green thumb even if your thumb is black.” He adds, “we’re not afraid of using technology to bring people back to their roots.”

Blanchet and Byron’s own roots have been nourished by an entrepreneurial environment. Their fraternity has been home to a number of successful entrepreneurs—Genentech founder Robert Swanson ’69, SM ’70 and 170 Systems co-founder and Grove mentor Karl Buttner ’87 both frequented Sigma Chi. Three other companies have been started by other members of their 2013 class.

“When you have that culture you are bound to have unconstrained thinking about the possibilities,” recalled Blanchet. The pair also graduated from MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator program, learning how to raise money, communicate, and recruit.

What’s next? “We’re taking natural ecosystems and shrinking them…eventually for space travel,” says Blanchet. But in the short term, you can grow your vegetables at home on earth.

Visit the GroveLabs site to learn more about the Boston Early Adopter Program they recently launched. 

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Guest blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

Kathy MacLaughlin Dedieu MEng ’99 flew to China during the virulent SARS epidemic in 2003 for her first assignment with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF)

Dedieu worked in Ethiopia to prevent the spread of measles.

Dedieu worked in Ethiopia to prevent the spread of measles.

Thanks to her prior experience with the engineering firm CDM working on Superfund sites, she used her knowledge of safety precautions to teach others how to avoid spreading contamination. On subsequent assignments in Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Uganda, she specialized in water and sanitation needs as well as infectious disease control.

This past August, just days after she and her husband had relocated from Massachusetts to Paris, MSF called her up for the Ebola crisis in Liberia. She immediately flew to Monrovia, where MSF has its largest treatment center.

“There is basically almost no other health care happening in Monrovia,” she says. “My work was a bit of a mix with more infection control than actual Ebola experience, but still pretty darn interesting!” she wrote.

“My team looked at health structures, which have been either closed or are functioning on a very limited basis in this city of 1.3 million. As the epidemic worsened, more places closed and/or had health workers affected,” she said. “It was very striking to me to think about people with respiratory infections, malaria, or complicated pregnancies who had nowhere to go.”

Dedieu’s team recommended that MSF open a program to address the lack of health services, and the project has already started. With malaria a chronic threat, MSF will carry out mass distributions of treatments targeting 300,000 people. She said, “We will work on opening primary and secondary health care centers in Monrovia safely over the next few months through infection control training and ensuring proper water, sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the health care workers.”

Along with her duties as a water and sanitation engineer and PPE specialist, Dedieu also provided the vital logistics for setting up the mission with an office, warehouse, cars, and supplies.

Dedieu’s experience with emergency assistance began at MIT with “an inspiring class with Professor Jan Wampler in architecture about rebuilding Central America after the terrible damage caused by Hurricane Mitch. We designed some new housing for Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with drains and sewers, and we went down and presented it to the mayor.”

Later, while working in Hong Kong for CDM, Dedieu was involved in a fundraiser for MSF. Finding out that they needed engineers, “I went through the recruitment process, left my well-paying job and never looked back.” After working for MSF exclusively for some years, she became a recruiter and helped them choose their personnel.

Now back in Paris, Dedieu continues to work on Liberian health. She encourages other engineers to consider getting involved with MSF: “The experience is extraordinary. It’s impossible to feel more of use, and you absolutely get more than you give.”

Related topic: Learn about HealthMap, cofounded at Boston Children’s Hospital by Clark Freifeld SM ’10, to help track ebola and other infectious diseases, published in Spectrum.

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Ice bucket challenges are all the rage, raising awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the efforts to treat and cure the devastating neurodegenerative disease. On campus, President L. Rafael Reif and the mechanical engineering faculty recently took the chilly dunks—with a decidedly MIT turn. MechE head Gang Chen dedicated the challenge to the son of Professor John Heywood SM ’62, PhD ’65—Stephen Heywood, who died of ALS in 2006 and whose family has created an innovative model for ALS research.

James Heywood, right, and his nephew Alex pour cold water over Heywood parents John and Peggy as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Alex’s father, Stephen Heywood, passed away from ALS in 2006.

James Heywood, right, and his nephew Alex pour cold water over Heywood parents John and Peggy as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Alex’s father, Stephen Heywood, passed away from ALS in 2006.

The Heywood family banded together when Stephen got the grim diagnosis in 1999. Within months, Jamie Heywood ’91 had left his job in California, moved back East, and the family incorporated the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI), the world’s first non-profit biotech, in Professor Heywood’s basement with the goal of delivering therapeutics to patients quickly.

MIT was pivotal to starting ALS TDI and its approach, Jamie Heywood says. The first major investor in was Alex d’Arbeloff, then chair of the MIT Corporation, who regularly “schooled” Jamie on strategy and provided startup funds and connections to other donors. Jamie’s mechanical engineering training at MIT was also central to the plan, particularly lessons from manufacturing management and quality and his systems dynamics course, 2.03, which explored how to model common physical relationships in complex systems.

“What was obvious early on is that molecular biology operated by the same rules and you could apply systems dynamics modeling to machines and human bodies. Ironically, it’s the only really bad grade I got at MIT (I didn’t do the homework) yet dynamics is the lens through which I view research today,” he says.

ALS TDI has used a systems engineering and manufacturing sensibility to build a research organization that emphasizes quality, reproducible results, and industrial-scale experiments targeting ALS. “We did the first large scale longitudinal study of a mouse model, looking at RNA to see how the disease progressed in each organ over the lifespan. Today ALS TDI has the world’s largest integrated molecular longitudinal data set of neurodegenerative diseases in mice.”

Besides raising animal study standards, the company identified specific inflammation changes in ALS that enabled therapies now in trial and discovered that early physical changes occurred in the neuromuscular junction, rather than in the central nervous system, challenging long-held assumptions about the disease. Today, TDI is the largest dedicated ALS research lab in the world, a global leader in preclinical drug screening for ALS, and engaged in some 15 active partnerships with biotech/pharma companies.

Jamie Heywood at the Drug Information Association 50th anniversary meeting in June where PatientsLikeMe received the President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in World Health.

Jamie Heywood at a Drug Information Association meeting in June where PatientsLikeMe received the President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in World Health.

As ALS TDI took off, the Heywood team quickly understood that patients had much to learn from one another. Jamie, his brother Ben Heywood ’93, and Jeff Cole ’93, SM ’95, founded PatientsLikeMe to enable patients to share disease-specific experiences, treatments, and outcomes. Today PatientsLikeMe has grown into an online research network of more than 250,000 people, representing 2,000 diseases, who share information about symptoms, treatments, and coping mechanisms.

By drawing on patients’ actual experiences, data from PatientsLikeMe was used recently to refute a prior clinical trial that showed lithium could help people with ALS. “Today our ALS modeling capability is so powerful that we can, in some cases, predict the results of clinical trials while they’re going on,” Jamie says.

Yet the cure to ALS is still not at hand.

In “#IceBucketChallenge, Investing Well,” an opinion piece published in The Scientist on Sept. 10, Jamie points to the importance of proactive research that relies on scaled systems discovery and patient involvement. While PatientsLikeMe and ALS TDI focus on patient engagement, that’s not true of some other organizations. The Heywoods hope the Ice Bucket donations will target high-impact work to fight this intransigent disease.

“The Ice Bucket Challenge raised knowledge, awareness, money, and hope,” he wrote, “but there is still a long road for ALS patients who are still living with a deadly disease for which there is still essentially no treatment.”

Learn more at ALS TDI and PatientsLikeMe.

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