Could this new mouse model help to understand the potential role of retroviruses in ALS and lead to new treatments? 

Award: $125,000

Collaborators: Dr. Jody Haigh, University of Manitoba, and Dr. Domenico Di Curzio, St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre

When Dr. Renée Douville found out she had been awarded one of the 2022 ALS CanadaBrain Canada Discovery Grants, she was excited. Very excited. 

“I screamed so loud, people down the hallway heard me,” she said.  

Dr. Douville, a virologist at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre and the University of Winnipeg, is one of nine grant recipients for 2022. The funding will help her build on nearly 15 years of research that has made her an expert in a niche area of ALS research: the role of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs).  

She was awarded alongside her long-time collaborator, Dr. Domenico Di Curzio at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, as well as Dr. Jody Haigh at the University of Manitoba.

“It’s particularly exciting because we’ve been working on this project together for a long time, slowly but surely,” she said.  

Brain Canada is proud to support researchers who have demonstrated successful collaboration over many years, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and collaboration in advancing scientific knowledge.” 

Dr. Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada

Unlike typical viruses, humans are born with dormant ERVs already in their DNA. Dr. Douville and others have shown that some people with ALS display elevated levels of a specific ERV protein, called ERVK, which led to the hypothesis that ERVs, if reactivated, can damage motor neurons.   

Dr. Douville has already tested the effect of overexpressed ERVK in cell and fruit fly models. The results? Neuronal damage, similar to what we see in people living with ALS.  

The ALS Canada-Brain Canada Discovery Grant will now help her and her collaborators understand the effect of elevated ERVK levels in a mouse model. If the team can further validate that elevated ERVK levels lead to ALS-like symptoms, it could open up new targets for treatment.  

The work dovetails with Lighthouse 2, a clinical trial happening in Europe, Australia and New Zealand to see whether targeting retroviruses can benefit people living with ALS. The trial is unique because it is testing a drug already approved to treat people with HIV that has previously been shown to be safe in people living with ALS.  

Dr. Douville had started her career at Johns Hopkins looking at ERVs in multiple sclerosis, but she soon realized they had a much stronger signature in ALS. She hasn’t looked back.  

“Everything started through scientific curiosity,” she said. “But today, my work with ALS has really changed how I think about endogenous retroviruses. My focus is now more on therapeutics, and how we could treat the damage ERVs do to our bodies…. I’m actually really hopeful that our research will potentially lead to new treatments for patients.” 

In addition to excitement, she said the other emotion she feels is gratitude.  

“I’m just extremely thankful for all the fundraising that people with ALS and their families do to raise money for our research,” she said. “And I’m thankful to ALS Canada and Brain Canada for taking a chance on us, even though our research area might be further afield.”

The ALS Canada-Brain Canada Discovery Grant Program has been made possible by the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada), Brain Canada Foundation and ALS Canada 

To find out more about the 2022 ALS Canada-Brain Canada Discovery Grants, read the full press release here.