Newswise — The director of the University of Arizona’s Animal Sciences Department, Ronald E. Allen, Ph.D., is one of 42 medical researchers and their labs who have been awarded more than $21 million in grants by MDA to advance critical neuromuscular research in 2010. Many of the grants are multi-year awards to be distributed over the next three years.

Allen has been awarded $264,000 to continue his pioneering work in the regulation of skeletal muscle satellite cells, cells that are required for normal muscle growth in animals and humans; and to rebuild diseased muscle. Allen’s findings may eventually lead to new treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Including this grant, MDA has awarded Allen $1,395,152 in scientific grant money since 1992.

The grant is part of MDA’s ongoing commitment to fund neuromuscular research that may eventually lead to treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy and related disorders.

“All of these grants were recommended for funding by the distinguished groups of neuromuscular disease researchers and clinicians voluntarily serving on the MDA Medical and Scientific Advisory Committees,” explains R. Rodney Howell, M.D., Chairman of the MDA Board of Directors. “Dr. Allen is an outstanding scientist, and Ron’s contributions to the field of neuromuscular disease research continue to be impressive.”

Allen’s project focuses on satellite stem cells, precursors of special muscle repair cells that remain near muscle fibers and move in, when needed, to make necessary repairs. Allen is trying to determine what the mechanism is that activates these satellite stem cells and sends them to damaged fibers.

“For the past 30 years we've been working to understand how the muscle satellite cell, normally a dormant muscle stem cell, responds to its environment to mediate repair and growth. MDA has been a partner for most of these years, and with the MDA's support we've been able to identify key signals that are propagated to "wake up" the sleeping satellite cell when muscle experiences even a minor injury,” Allen explained. “More recently, MDA has supported our efforts to discover the signaling mechanisms that direct activated satellite cells to a site of muscle fiber injury. The ability of satellite cells to seek out injury, even at distant locations within the same muscle is essential for rapid muscle fiber repair. In recent experiments we found that if one end of a rat muscle is injured and satellite cells from another rat are injected into the other end of the same muscle, many of the cells will migrate to the site of injury and participate in muscle fiber repair. We also found that if instead of injuring the muscle, a candidate migratory factor, or a signal for help, is injected into the end of the muscle, transplanted satellite cells will migrate to the candidate migratory factor, the injured area. In a related experiment the same cultured satellite cells were injected into the blood stream, and they too sought out and found the injury site in muscle.

“These findings suggest that if we can unravel this process,” Allen continued, “we may be able to manipulate muscle precursor cells used for stem cell therapy to enhance their ability to systematically target multiple muscle injury sites in the body. This would be particularly important in the case of muscle diseases, such as Duchenne dystrophy, where muscles throughout the body need repair.”

All research grant applications go through a rigorous peer review process by MDA’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Committees, composed of world-renowned experts in neuromuscular diseases. Reviewers assess the protocols and methods used by the applying scientists, as well as the relevance of the applicant’s research to therapy development for the 40-plus neuromuscular diseases that MDA covers. Each year, about 500 researchers apply to MDA for research funding. MDA annually invests more than $40 million on international research projects.

About MDA Founded in 1950, the Muscular Dystrophy Association is the nation’s largest non-governmental funder of research seeking treatments and cures for more than 40 neuromuscular diseases, including muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), and Friedreich’s ataxia (FA). The first nonprofit organization to be recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Medical Association (“for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity”), MDA also provides unparalleled health care services through its network of more than 200 hospital-affiliated clinics; advocates for the families it serves; and invests significant resources educating the medical and scientific communities, as well as the general public, about neuromuscular diseases affecting more than 1 million Americans. Thanks to decades of generous contributions from caring individuals, plus outstanding support received from local, regional and national sponsors, MDA is credited for its role in building the entire field of neuromuscular disease research, while simultaneously nurturing clinical care to significantly improve both quality and length of life for those affected by neuromuscular diseases.

In Tucson, families receive medical and healthcare support at the MDA/ALS Center at the Mucio F. Delgado Clinic at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, directed by Katalin Scherer, M.D. and Lawrence Z. Stern, M.D., co-director; and at the Children’s Clinics for Rehabilitative Services directed by Timothy M. Miller, M.D.