ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, was identified for the first time in 1874. A progressive disease of the nervous system, ALS causes paralysis by impacting motor nerves. World-reknowned scientist Steven Hawking is the most famous person living with this disease. He, along with thousands of others, still waits for a cure.
Hande Ozdinler, PhD., who is conducting research on ALS, has been given the responsibility to form the ASL research center at Chicago’s Northweastern University. At the laboratory that she will establish, Ozdinler will concentrate on dying nerve cells. She will investigate why and through what mechanisms the cells die and which factors could enable them to return to life.
In addition to numerous Turkish doctors who actively work in patient care in USA, there are also those who take part in the research efforts to discover the causes of diseases. Dr. Ozdinler talked about the new institute and their work with TURKOFAMERICA:
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Istanbul in 1971. From Bosphorus University, I received my bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and Genetıcs, and also my master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, through a partner project of the same department of the University. Later on, I came to the USA to work on my doctorate. I received my PhD degrees in the subjects of Cell Biology, Anatomy, and Nerve Sciences from Lousiana State University’s Health Sciences Center. Afterwards, I came to Harvard Medical School’s Massacuhusetts General Hosptial Neurosurgery department as a researcher. At the end of my first year here, I was given an award, which is presented only to two people, and I became more independent and moved up to the position of facutly member. At last, I was given the responsibility to form the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) research center at Northwestern University, and subsequently I decided to leave Harvard University and transfer to Northwestern Universtiy.
Are you conducting research projects on diseases of the brain? At what stage is your work right now?
My field of interest is neuro-degenerative diseases. I am especially focused on ALS. I am not one of the doctors seeing patients, I am one of the doctors seeking to find the causes of diseases. Our work is progressing rapidly. I believe that I will bring momentum to the studies, especially in this newly formed center.
What exactly is the ALS research center you formed? What sort of stages did it go through before being established? What is its budget? What is its plan of action and goals? How many people will work at the center?
As you know, ALS is a disease with no cure and there are numerous institutions that exist to find the cause of it. In the laboratory that I will be forming at Northwestern University, we will be focusing on the nerve cells that die because of the disease. The cause and the mechanism through which they die, and through which factors they could be brought back to life will be investigated. The center is still at the stage of formation and, at first, its work will be started by four people. I hope the number of our researchers and our budget will increase in tandem with our discoveries. In the early stages, the center will receive a great portion of its financial support from the Les Turner ALS Association, which is an organization devoted to finding the cure for this disease. I am sure that we will find support from other sources in the following years.
What would need to be done for your work to make it to the clinical stage?
One of the advantages of discoveries on the cellular level is that they give quick results; a disadvantage is the necessaity for the obtained result to be tested in other systems. There will be work in animal models in due course. In addition to this, one of world’s biggest ALS banks is in Northwestern and it will be possible to benefit from that.
Medical research in the USA are carried out on top levels and financial support is provided. What are the main resources for this types of research?
In the USA, somewhat differently than in Turkey, the private sector gives a lot of support for scientific research. In Turkey, as far as I know, support is generally state-based. There are of course exceptions to this, for example, the ALS research center that the Kirac Foundation established under the aegis of Bosphorus University. However, these types of support are both very small in number and the financial support provided is limited in comparison to the USA. Yet the private sector’s investment in scientific research is an inevitable obligation. I hope, for this reason, that appealing packages would be developed in Turkey. To expect investment in the sciences solely from the state is a big deficiency.
What is the reason that medical research in Turkey is limited?
Actually, I don’t necessariyly believe that medical research in Turkey is limited. When the opportunities at hand are taken into consideration, Turkey is not unsuccessful. What is important is to increase the level of investment. Turkey, for example, is one of the leading countries in terms of eye health and operations, and, furthermore, we have started health tourism in this area. This is a great achievement. My hope is for us to be able to show same level of success in neuro-degenerative diseases as well.
Are there other Turkish doctors in the center you work at? Are exchange programs recommended?
As of now, we don’t, but I wish this for the future. Ultimately, if we don’t share our knowledge, it would be a burden for us. Just as we share every technological discovery and every accumulation of knowledge with the doctors of other countries, we need to share them with Turkish doctors immediately.
You went to Northwestern University after Harvard. What are the differences of the mode of work?
Harvard is really an excellent university. I had the joy and pleasure of working there for six years. It’s such an atmosphere that your brain is always working. There are always dialogues, panels, debates, and conferences. You constantly ask questions and try to find answers to those questions. I don’t know Northwestern that much but after a few visits there I understood that if you take Harvard and place it in Chicago, it would be Northwestern University. Harvard University is an academically satisfied university, and Northwestern is a rapidly growing and developing, dynamic and active university, and it is among the top ten universities of the world. Its dynamics attracted me. I’ve seen there the dynamics that I haven’t seen at Harvard and I decided to take part in that excitement of growth.
Any advice to medical students and new graduates who want to take on the occupation of a doctor in the USA?
In my opinion, they shouldn’t set themselves just to see patients; rather, they should keep a place in their minds and hearts for research. If possible, they should receive a scientific doctorate. There is a joke here which I like; they say, “Doctors that see patients cure one patient in one day. But doctors that investigate the causes of a disease don’t even cure one patient throughout their whole life. Yet one day comes and they are able to cure thousands of people at once with their discoveries.” I think doctors in Turkey too must raise themselves in accordance with these two methods of curing.
You hold a position at TASSA. Can you explain that a little further?
The Turkish American Scientists and Scholars Association (TASSA) is an organization established by Turkish scientists who live in America in order to build bridges in the fields of science between Turkey and America. I was first elected as the Health and Biomedical representative member of the board. Later, I was elected as the committee chair. I say ‘I wish I could’ve been more active.’ We all work voluntarily at TASSA. TASSA is growing rapidly; both its credibility and its participation and investment levels are increasing. I am so happy for the existence of an organization such as TASSA. It proves to me that people can be beneficial to their country even without living within the borders of their country. I think this is a very important fact.
WHAT IS ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.