My talk for the American Chemical Society about research by the Institute for Ethnomedicine into the tangle diseases was well received in Orinda, but I wish to correct a false report of my remarks. I presented the same talk at the Commonwealth Club earlier that day, and the previous day in the Stanford chemistry department.
Alzheimer's, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Parkinson's disease are characterized by misfolded and tangled brain proteins, but the mechanisms of misfolding are not well understood.
Together with Rachael Dunlop and Ken Rodgers we found that the cyanobacterial toxin BMAA mimics the amino acid L-serine. If BMAA is mistakenly inserted by cellular machinery into neuroproteins, they misfold. Excess L-serine can prevent this mistaken insertion.
More than 25 scientific articles have been published on the link between BMAA and ALS. Adrian Burton reviewed our research for The Lancet Neurology on Sept. 30. Over 20 scientific articles have been published on BMAA damage to brain cells, reviewed in Environmental Health Perspectives by Wendee Holtcamp.
ALS patients were enrolled by Phoenix Neurological Associates in an FDA-approved human clinical trial on L-serine earlier this year; I have not solicited patients for this trial. I did not suggest that my Orinda audience take L-serine. Even though L-serine naturally occurs in our diet, its safety and efficacy for ALS patients should be properly determined through FDA-approved clinical trials before anyone advocates its use.
For now, it seems prudent to avoid exposure to BMAA. The possibility that L-serine can lower the risk of neurodegenerative disease is a long shot, but we are determined to find out if it works. Based on our studies of indigenous islanders who ingest over twice the amount of L-serine in their traditional diet as Americans and who age gracefully, it may not hurt to consider eating a little tofu with our meals until more research is completed.
A Harvard Ph.D., Paul Alan Cox was named by TIME magazine as one of 11 "Heroes of Medicine" for his search for new cures for serious illness.