8 February 2011. A painless test of muscle conductivity that promises to make clinical trials for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) smaller, cheaper, and faster has earned its inventor a $1 million prize from ALS nonprofit Prize4Life. Seward Rutkove of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston will receive Prize4Life’s biomarker award for his handheld electrical impedance myography device, which is already in use in one clinical trial. He will receive the prize in June at a ceremony in New York. The New York Times broke the news online on 3 February and embargoed it until its appearance today in ScienceTimes.
Rutkove and Prize4Life predict the new test will slash the price tag for ALS clinical trials by more than half. Rutkove already won a progress award from Prize4Life for the method in 2009 (see ARF related news story). He founded Convergent Medical Devices in Woburn, Massachusetts, to develop the technology. Neuralstem, Inc. in Rockville, Maryland, is already using a similar electrical impedance myography tool in a clinical trial (see ARF related news story).
Currently, researchers rely on death or use of a ventilator as the primary endpoints in ALS trials, measures too crude and slow to quantify drug effects early. The new test tracks disease progression with a noninvasive device that measures how electrical current travels through muscle, which degenerates as ALS progresses. Scientists can also measure muscle conductivity between needle electrodes implanted into muscle, but those methods are harder to perform and less reliable than the new device, besides being painful for patients. Rutkove’s handheld device measures the electrical field generated when current runs through the muscles underneath electrodes placed on the skin.
The $16,000-$20,000 unit attaches to a laptop or personal digital assistant-like device. The test takes about 20 minutes and detects abnormalities even before a person notices muscle weakness. Rutkove has also suggested that electrical impedance myography might help doctors diagnose ALS, although it may not be able to distinguish ALS from other neurological conditions that affect muscle (Rutkove, 2009). The method does differentiate between neurogenic ALS and some myopathic conditions such as inflammatory myopathy (Garmirian et al., 2009).
Want your own prize payday? Prize4Life is also offering $1 million for a treatment that extends the life of ALS model mice by 25 percent (see ARF related news story). In addition to its prize campaigns, Prize4Life has several other projects. It runs the ALS Research Forum, which reprints selected ARF content, and funds this reporter’s position. With Alzforum, Prize4Life recently launched the ALSGene database (see ARF related news story). The organization is also developing a large, quality-controlled ALS model mouse colony and a clinical trials database.—Amber Dance.