Ataxia research at the University of Minnesota aims to bring hope and relief to 150,000 Americans who suffer from the neurological disease, which damages the cerebellum and affects coordination, walking, swallowing, and other essential functions.
The most steadfast supporter of these investigations is the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center (BAARC), an affiliate of the Minnesota Medical Foundation.
In the past 20 years, BAARC has granted $1.6 million to University researchers, who have used the momentum built by that support to obtain more than $28 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“No other funders come close [to BAARC] in stimulating research on ataxia at the University,” says Harry Orr, Ph.D., a lead ataxia researcher and co-discoverer of the SCA-1 ataxia gene in 1993. “In addition to funding early-stage research through seed grants, they give ongoing support to our ataxia clinic, which helps stabilize our finances. They also recently generated funds for an endowed faculty chair in translational science.”
BAARC assisted the early research of University investigators Michael Koob, Ph.D., and Young Yoon, Ph.D., who are seeking an effective treatment for Friedreich’s ataxia, a form of the disease caused by a deficiency of the protein frataxin in cells of the cerebellum. Koob and Yoon received a BAARC grant of $75,000 in 2008 to explore a gene therapy that delivers frataxin to ataxia-afflicted cells, and the researchers have used the data from that initial study to draw a substantial influx of support from other funders, including the NIH.
Similarly, University researcher Gülin Öz, Ph.D., received a BAARC grant to support her novel approach to ataxia investigation: using high-power MRI scanners to detect minute cellular changes in the cerebellum as they occur. After the BAARC funding boosted her research, Öz obtained NIH support for two studies to expand the use of magnetic resonance spectroscopy in the early detection of ataxia.
BAARC’s support spreads beyond the realm of ataxia research alone. Its recent gift of $300,000 for the purchase of a high-end confocal microscope, which allows researchers to see three-dimensional images, benefits many scientists at the University.
“Things are much brighter because BAARC has stepped forward to help us,” Orr says.