SA clinical trial could help ALS patients

SAN ANTONIO – At any given time, about 20,000 Americans are living with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's a devastating disease with no cure, but a clinical trial happening now at San Antonio's UT Health Science Center could increase the life span of ALS patients.  

"I canceled all my patients so I could be here," Dr. Walter Root told his team of doctors at the UT Health Science Center. 

It's strange for Root to be the one in the patient's chair.

"It's kind of a scary view," he said. 

It's scary, because in February he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that causes loss of muscle control and body movement. Patients are typically given two to five years to live.

"Oh, it was devastating, the diagnosis," Root said.

So when he found out about a new clinical trial in which a device is implanted in the diaphragm of ALS patients to improve breathing and life span, he signed up immediately. 

"This device is FDA-approved but has never been formally tested in a clinical trial in ALS patients," said Dr. Carlayne Jackson, a UTHSC neurologist, who is leading the trial.

Jackson said it's been estimated the device could increase ALS sufferers' life spans by 16 to 24 months, but this trial could provide scientific proof that by comparing the results to other patients who do not receive the device.

She's working with Dr. Kent Van Sickle, a general surgeon who implanted one of the devices in Root two weeks ago.

"We put in these simulators for the diaphragm, little tiny leads. So there's two that we put on each diaphragm side, and the leads come out through a tiny incision in the upper abdomen and it's basically connected to this coupling device, which is connected to the machine to pace the diaphragm," Van Sickle said.

Van Sickle said the surgery was a success. Now, Root will use the remote control attached to the surgically placed device to stimulate his diaphragm three times a day to keep the muscle strong.

"If we can increase the survival by 16 or 24 months, and quality of life for an ALS victim, this is making progress in this disease," Root said. 

This clinical trial will include several hundred ALS patients across the United States. In the end, UT Medicine doctors will pool their data with other doctors nationwide to collect widespread results.

For more information about the clinical trial, please call Pam Kittrell, M.S.N., RN, at 210-450-0524.

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