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Seeking a Cure for ALS, Biological Sciences Professor Earns NIH Grant

Monday, July 10, 2017

Just two years after joining the faculty of St. John’s University, Wan Seok Yang, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, is making his mark, having earned his first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for research on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

His proposal, “Determination of Cell Death Pathways Activated in ALS,” explores the way preventing ferroptosis (a form of cell death) can help fight ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The research is based on his earlier work, which focused on triggering ferroptosis to fight the spread of cancer. The $492,000 award extends for three years, at which point Dr. Yang can apply for another NIH grant.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons in the brain and the spinal cord. When motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost, leading to the loss of an individual’s ability to speak, eat, move, and breathe. Currently, there is no cure.  

“ALS is caused by the selective cell death of motor neurons,” Dr. Yang said. “So inhibiting the cell death pathway sounded like a reasonable area to explore.”

Dr. Yang’s exploration of ALS was inspired, in part, by the Ice Bucket Challenge, a worldwide social media phenomenon that peaked in the summer of 2014. The challenge involved the dumping of a bucket of ice water over a person's head to promote awareness of the disease and encourage donations for research.

With a heightened awareness of the disease, Dr. Yang and his colleagues shifted their focus from cancer to ALS and the possibility of inhibiting ferroptosis to slow the progression of neurodegeneration that occurs with that disease.  

The grant is part of the Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) Pilot Project Award (SC2) program, commonly called the SCORE2 grant. “The SCORE2 program typically looks for an innovative, but risky, idea proposed by a new investigator,” he said. “Successful completion of SCORE2 will put me in a very strong position to apply for larger grant programs in the future.”

“Considering that Wan is only in his second year at St. John’s, this is a fantastic accomplishment,” said Ales Vancura, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Biological Sciences in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are very proud of him.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Yang is eager to mentor the students who will work in his lab as a result of this grant, just as he was mentored by faculty members during the grant application process. “I’m really looking forward to working with both undergraduate and graduate students on the SCORE2 grant program,” he said. “It’s my hope that they will want to continue in biomedical research in their careers.”