A Visit to the Barmada Research Lab: Unraveling the Mysteries of ALS
The primary mission of Active Against ALS is to fund research toward effective treatments and ultimately a cure for ALS. To this end, we created a scientific advisory board to help our organization select our grant recipients. As a board, we also seek to understand the research goals of the scientists we fund. In mid-November, several of us toured the bustling research laboratory of Active Against ALS grant recipient Dr. Sami Barmada in the Taubman Biomedical Sciences Building in order to better understand how his work seeks to identify useful therapies.
Dr. Barmada, clearly a teacher at heart, used a 3-D model of the brain and spinal cord to describe different types of neurons. He then explained how ALS affects these neurons and why he believes that measuring neurodegeneration is critical to finding a cure. Dr. Barmada cares deeply about his research, and has a broad understanding of how modern science is key to unlocking the mysteries of the disease. He emphasized that if potential therapies are to benefit humans, research models must translate to patients suffering from ALS.
Next, two of Dr. Barmada’s team members showed us their wet lab and tissue culture facility. Nate Safren illustrated how they derive neurons from human stem cells to create a genetically accurate model for testing therapies. Under a microscope he showed us material from several stages of the month-long process that ultimately yields a collection of neurons for experimentation. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Tank painstakingly extracted individual neurons with a pipette to prepare them for the next stage of development.
The last part of our tour was like being immersed in an episode of NCIS. We were led through a series of hallways and a stairway, then through a busy lab where a door at the back opened into a dark room. Our eyes adjusted to reveal moving machines, pulsing screens, and a giant microscope, affectionately dubbed ‘Flo’, pointed down at a blue-lit plate. According to Roberto Miguez, Dr. Barmada’s software engineer, this is one of the world’s only programmable, automated, fluorescence microscopes. Roberto and his colleague Hilary Archbold showed us how they make adaptations to view neurons using blue, red and green light. With systems to keep her operating at precise conditions, ‘Flo’ uses powerful computers to quickly identify which neurons, out of thousands, ultimately survive. With Flo’s customizable high throughput, they are able to conduct cutting-edge research never done before.
Seeing Dr.Barmada’s lab at work to derive and track the survival of thousands of human neurons, it was obvious why research toward finding a cure for ALS is so expensive – it is an extremely complex puzzle requiring sophisticated technology and specialized scientists. It was illuminating and uplifting to see the level of activity and expertise directed at finding a cure for ALS, and we feel privileged to support this work. We left the lab more committed than ever to raising funds for a cure. Thank you to Dr. Sami Barmada and his colleagues for letting us peek into their ‘hive’ that’s literally buzzing — active against ALS