Dr Heather Durham’s Story

Research is in her blood

Heather Durham, PhD won’t be paddling off in a kayak any time soon.  The researcher who focuses primarily on understanding amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has no intention of hanging up her lab coat when she turns 65, the traditional age of retirement.  While she might enjoy kayaking and scuba diving, her true passion is her work. “I love my work.  It is a privilege to have a job that taps your intellectual capacity,” says Dr. Durham.

For nearly 25 years, Dr. Durham, a professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) of McGill University, has been studying how motor neurons succumb in ALS and looking for treatment strategies.  She has a vivid memory of the day she decided to dedicate her life’s work to ALS. Her mentor the late Dr. George Karpati, a leader in translational neuromuscular medicine, asked her to accompany him during a visit with a patient with ALS.  She remembers standing in the room, meeting the patient and seeing first hand the impact of the disease.  She was intrigued. She made a decision on the spot to study the neurodegenerative disease.

Heather has a translational mindset. She uses basic research to understand disease at the cellular level and applies that information to identify and test potential therapeutic approaches. “I joined the MNI because I wanted my research to have practical relevance. Research into ALS was a perfect fit.  To this day, the disease fascinates me on a scientific level and a human level,” she says. “No matter how you get involved there is no way this disease does not affect you. There is something touching about the dilemma.”

So far, there is no cure for ALS. About 3,000 Canadian adults have the disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and eventually paralysis. Most people survive less than five years following diagnosis but a small percentage of people live 10 years or longer.

The Durham Research Lab

ALS is not just one disease. Rather it is a collection of disorders with different initial causes, but common symptoms and common disease progression. Mutations in several genes have been linked with forms of familial ALS (known as FALS when the disease runs in families). The proteins made from these mutant genes have a tendency to take on abnormal shapes that can disrupt the proteins’ functions and cause them to form clumps inside cells. In fact, the presence of clumps of damaged proteins in motor neurons is characteristic of both FALS and sporadic ALS (no family history). Although cells have ways to get rid of damaged proteins, eventually these processes fail. This contributes to the dysfunction of neurons and their eventual death.

The Durham lab has led research into how these so called ‘stress response pathways’ are dysfunctional in ALS and is searching for ways to boost the capacity of neurons to protect themselves by activating ways to clear out toxic proteins before they wreck havoc.

More than two decades later, Dr. Durham remains passionate about her work. “There is something about trying to understand motor neurons. Each type of neuron has its own personality. Each is built to perform a specific job. It is interesting to understand what makes each of them different from the other, including their vulnerabilities to disease.”

Recipient of Prestigious International Grant

Dr. Durham and her colleagues are the recent recipients of a prestigious E-RARE-2 grant awarded by the ERA-Net for Research Programmes on Rare Diseases. The ERA-Net is a European-based organization through which various agencies in partnering countries fund transnational collaborative and multidisciplinary projects on rare diseases. ALS Canada, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research – Institute of Genetics, the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (France) and the Ministry of Health (Israel) are provide funding for this three-year grant. It is important to note a portion of money donated to the ALS Society of Quebec through the Walks for ALS is contributed to ALS Canada, the national organization that funds ALS research, including this E-RARE-2 grant.

Dr. Durham is project coordinator for RNA-ALS:  Dysregulation of RNA in the Pathogenesis of ALS, a project to be conducted by the multidisciplinary team of Heather Durham (McGill University), Michael Strong (Western University, London, Ontario), Edor Kabashi (ICM, Paris, France – a Canadian citizen trained in Quebec at McGill University and Université de Montréal), and Eran Hornstein (Weitzmann Institute of Science, Israel).

Hope through research

Dr. Durham is confident hereditary ALS will become a treatable disease within the next decade.  She notes scientists are gaining a better understanding of the genetic causes of hereditary ALS and are working hard to develop treatments.  She understands timelines are difficult for patients because of the quick progression of the disease, but she points out research does not advance in a linear fashion.  “Research can lead to surprising discoveries. We basically never know when the next big breakthrough will happen,” says Dr. Durham. “Researchers are approaching the problem from different directions. So, there is tremendous potential.”

Canada is among the world leaders in ALS research. Dr. Durham says the research environment in Canada is excellent and there is a real sense of momentum. But she points out, “We need help – researchers can’t do this alone. We need the support of the ALS Societies, we need donors to support research, we need governments to adequately fund research. We all need to work together to make the next big breakthrough.”

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