After the Ice Melts
Georgia Tech researcher and her team of undergraduates are searching for a cure for ALS.
It’s been months since we have seen people dumping frigid water on their heads, but the disease that drove a viral sensation of Ice Bucket Challenges last summer lives on. One Georgia Tech researcher and her laboratory are taking on a different challenge: finding a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Last summer, when Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson wanted to accept the Ice Bucket Challenge, Cassie Mitchell was right alongside him, representing Georgia Tech’s effort to find that cure.
For Mitchell, a faculty member in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, the research is personal.
“A lot of people think because I’m paralyzed I have ALS,” she said.
Mitchell has been diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, or NMO.
“I’m very fascinated by neurological disease,” Mitchell says. “I don’t want to study myself. NMO is not on my list. I have to live with it, so studying it might be a little much.”
Mitchell says being a patient of a disease that impacts her nervous system fuels her enthusiasm for ALS research.
“There aren’t very many treatments for ALS; in fact, there’s only one FDA-approved treatment and it only extends life for about three months,” Mitchell explains. “I feel like our research could do a lot better.”
The “our” Mitchell refers to is her team of researchers, and they are not your average group of scientists taking on an uncured neurodegenerative disease. The overwhelming majority are undergraduate students. In fact, Mitchell’s lab is the largest undergraduate research lab on the Georgia Tech campus.
Mitchell and her students are focused on bioinformatics, meaning they take in as much data as they can about ALS from patients and the people who treat them. They make computer models to predict what the underlying causes of the disease are, why patients are impacted differently, and which treatments look the most promising.
“Usually anywhere from 25 and up to 45 undergraduates have been working here at any one time,” Mitchell says.
The lab turned to undergraduates because of the need for so many helping hands, but Mitchell says having so many young researchers has become an asset.
“There’s something very special about a naïve researcher,” Mitchell says with a grin. “Watching that growth process and leveraging that enthusiasm helps the lab as a whole.” Her students share the same passion.
“It’s amazing,” says Grant Coan, a fourth-year biochemistry major from Clarksville, Georgia.
“I’ve gotten opportunities in this lab that I never would have received other places.”
Coan says he was drawn to Mitchell’s lab because of the opportunity to participate in research with meaningful impact on a disease that often does not receive much attention.
“It’s unexplored. I get a lot of opportunities to contribute to developing a much larger knowledge base about ALS.”
Renaid Kim, a native of South Korea, says Mitchell’s research allowed him to focus on two fields of interest: medicine and computer science.
“I love big data-driven research,” Kim laughs.
But when thinking about his work, Kim is most proud of what he has been allowed to accomplish as an undergraduate researcher.
“I’ve been able to lead an independent project,” Kim explains. “I was able to come up with my own hypothesis.”
While some students scour data looking for a cure, others are looking for what can be done to improve the quality of life for ALS patients immediately.
“We have to remember that ALS isn’t a one-time event. Ongoing research is necessary and we will continuously need funds,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell says the Ice Bucket Challenges helped put the spotlight on a disease that needed some attention, and had often been underfunded.
Now her team is working hard to help find a cure.
“As a patient of a neurological disease, I didn’t let it stop me,” Mitchell says. “We can all work together, whether we are afflicted or not, to help the problem; that’s the biggest payoff.”
Writer: Steven Norris
Photo/Video: Steven Norris, Gabriel Pippas, Rob Felt