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Teaming up to support ataxia research

Harry Orr, Ph.D., and
his lab team, including
graduate student Melissa
Ingram, are working to
identify promising drug
compounds that could
one day be used to
treat ataxia. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

In the fight against ataxia, the University of Minnesota sits at ground zero.

Nowhere else in the world do all the pieces—research, education, clinical treatment, and fundraising—come together as they do in the Twin Cities, where both the National Ataxia Foundation (NAF) and the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center (BAARC) are based.

These organizations have long provided critical support for ataxia research at the University, where Institute for Translational Neuroscience director Harry T. Orr, Ph.D., has spent the past 25 years moving the fight forward. NAF and BAARC recently joined forces to provide Orr and his team with $100,000 to fund research focused on developing a drug to treat spinocerebellar ataxia type 1.

“Ataxia is an orphan disease,” Orr explains, “which means the big pharmaceutical companies are less interested in devoting dollars to developing drugs [for it]; the end-user market is just not that large. So we need to take our research further along.”

Working with previously identified potential ataxia drugs, Orr’s team is exploring the possibilities. They’re homing in on candidates, developing assays, and passing those assays to a chemist who tweaks the structure of the drug.

“It’s a back-and-forth process that culminates in identifying three or four drugs that we can take to the next stage,” Orr says. “This grant from BAARC and the NAF enables that work.”

BAARC board chair Mark Allison has a deeply personal interest in the outcome of this research. His father, Twins baseball great Bob Allison, died of ataxia in 1995. Prior to his death, Bob Allison and his wife started BAARC to raise funds to support research that would one day find a cure for the debilitating disease.

“We’re all very excited about Harry’s research,” Mark Allison says. “We know that down the road his work will lead to great discoveries.”

Michael Parent, executive director of the NAF, agrees. “The foundation has been funding research at the University of Minnesota since the 1980s, and we’ve been proud to support the work that’s led us to this point. We need to have champions like Harry Orr to bring ataxia to an end.”

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