UArizona Student and Military Veteran Aims to Unlock Ground-Breaking Treatment for Motor Neuron Disease

Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the famous American professional baseball player, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that destroys nerve cells. There is currently no cure for this disease, which leads to a complete loss of voluntary muscle control and death due to respiratory failure.

Although the disease affects individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, studies demonstrate that military veterans are nearly twice as likely to develop ALS compared to those with no history of military service. Several studies identified an unusual increase in diagnoses in service members below 25 years of age.

According to the Defense Health Research Program, a variety of factors ranging from excessive physical activity, physical injury or trauma, and toxic exposure to chemicals have been implicated as potential risk factors for the development of ALS.

For Zachary Hammer, a senior pursuing neuroscience, the past two years have been devoted to testing many newly designed compounds to identify one with the potential to advance the treatment of ALS. “Being a military veteran, I approach this task with great responsibility and consider it a race against time to help those overcome the fatal neurodegenerative disease,” Hammer said.

Picture of Zachary Hammer working under in the hood in the Zarnescu lab.
Zachary Hammer distributes a mixture of fly food with an exciting new drug having the potential to significantly improve the lives of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Photo courtesy of Sam Macklin.

To study this progressive disease, Hammer is using fruit flies designed to express the human version of a protein called TDP-43. This protein is important because it is linked to 97% of all ALS cases.

A greater understanding of this protein and its interactions will hopefully allow the team at the Zarnescu lab to develop a new effective drug. Current treatments include five FDA-approved medications which do little to treat the underlying cause of neurodegeneration. Life expectancy for patients diagnosed with ALS currently averages in the range of two to five years.

Current FDA-approved medications prolong patient survival by approximately 3-6 months. This is progress, but “we, as a society of scientists and medical professionals, can do better to provide a safe and effective treatment that will reverse the profound effects of neurodegeneration,” says Hammer.

The goal of the lab, led by Daniela Zarnescu, Ph.D., is to further develop current insights alongside the discovery of new strategies to explain and tackle the complexity ALS. This information is essential to developing treatments to stop or reverse its effects and provide patients with significant long-term improvement to quality of life and lifespan,” says Hammer.

For his continued efforts, Hammer received the 2021 Galileo Circle Scholarship which is awarded to students who “demonstrate exceptional potential in the physical, mathematical, environmental, cognitive, or life sciences.” He will continue his drug discovery research under Dr. Zarnescu for the 2021-2022 academic year and plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.

In Hammer’s experience, military personnel and veterans face a plethora of challenges including, but not limited to, mental health. “This path will afford me the opportunity to give back to the military community where I can contribute to innovative patient care at the intersections of science and medicine,” Hammer said.