The Ice Bucket Challenge Led to a Major Breakthrough in ALS Research

AFGE via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
AFGE via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / AFGE via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Thanks to the ALS Association, the summer of 2014 will be forever associated with videos of people pouring freezing water over their heads. While some criticized the "Ice Bucket Challenge" as a classic example of "slacktivism," or just another annoying trend clogging their newsfeeds, the numbers can’t be denied: the challenge's 17 million participants ended up raising over $220 million for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) research. The organization says it was likely the single largest episode of giving outside of a disaster event. 

And now, one year later, scientists at Johns Hopkins are crediting a major breakthrough in ALS research to the viral fundraiser. According to researcher Jonathan Ling, the millions of dollars donated has given him and his colleagues the financial freedom to pursue “high risk, high reward” experiments. This time, their risks seem to have paid off.

The breakthrough discovery deals with the mysterious TDP-43, a protein that can be found clumped outside the nuclei of brain cells of patients with ALS. In a study published last week, the protein was found to break down in mice and become incapable of properly decoding the DNA it was meant to. This caused the cells to die within a few days. 

When researchers then introduced a protein designed to mimic TDP-43 into the neurons, cells came back to life and were fully restored. This was an incredible breakthrough for the field, as treatment could have the potential to slow down or even stop effects of the disease, which is currently incurable.

The next step is to create a therapeutic model to treat mice as whole organisms rather than just treating their cells. After that, researchers will hopefully be ready to move forward to clinical trials on people.

After last year’s success, the ALS Association intends to make the Ice Bucket Challenge a yearly occurrence to fund more groundbreaking research in the future. If a month’s worth of unwanted video tags does indeed become an annual fixture, just remind yourself that it's all making a difference.

[h/t: The Washington Post]