Eric Martineau is a PhD student in Richard Robitaille’s laboratory at l’Université de Montréal. In 2015, he received the ALS Canada Doctoral Research Award, which provides $25,000 per year over three years for young researchers to pursue a PhD in a Canadian laboratory.

How long have you been studying ALS?

I’ve been studying ALS since 2011 when I joined the lab as an undergrad student. After that I started my Master’s and my PhD program in the same lab.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to studying ALS?

At first when I joined the lab as an undergrad, I was mostly curious. I found that ALS was an interesting disease. But the more I started working on the disease and coming to meetings such as the ALS Canada Research Forum, I started to really feel how important it is to study this disease, because it’s such a devastating disease and there’s no cure yet available. I can really see where research can help and be of great benefit to the patient. And that’s what kept me going in this particular field.

Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you’re engaged in at the moment?

Currently, we’re working on the connection between the motor neurons and the muscle cells. So it’s this connection which allows the neurons to make the muscle contract and allows a person to move. And we see that there are very early changes, a disconnection. And that the environment around the connection is actually altered in a very bad way, and which could be toxic to the connection and leading to its loss. And so we’re studying these early mechanisms and seeing how particular cell types contribute to make this toxic environment which leads to the loss of this connection, and which has a direct impact on the symptoms.

How do you feel that this type of research will make an impact for somebody living with ALS?

I think this research could have a great impact because while studying how the neural environment becomes toxic, we hope that we can identify new targets for drugs that could help make the environment healthier around the connection, and help preserve it longer. And this could have a direct impact, again, on the ALS patient, because it’s the loss of this connection which is at the root of most of the motor symptoms to begin with. So we really think that this could be of benefit to patients.

If someone living with ALS right now were to ask you where we are at in research and how close we are to getting treatments, what would you tell them?

I think there’s some very promising treatments on the horizon. They’re not approved yet, and there’s still a lot of research to do, but there are some really promising studies. In the lab, we’re collaborating with Cytokinetics for their trial, which is a drug that targets the muscle. And while it may not help directly delay the pathology, it may actually compensate for some of the symptoms and be, again, of great benefit for the patients. So I think there is really a lot of hope, and there’s a lot of dynamism in the community lately. I think things are looking good.

What would you say to a donor who has given to our organization or is thinking about it, and the difference that it could make in this field?

I can say that both personally, but also as I saw from other colleagues, that it could be of great benefit. The funding program of ALS Canada is really exceptional in the sense that it doesn’t just give money. It tries to really stretch every buck to be the most impactful. And they fund some high-risk projects for a short period of time to help people get the results that could then help them get bigger funds from other, more general sources, such as the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

So if I take the example of our lab, for instance, we applied a couple years ago to a grant from ALS Canada. We received funding for it. It was a short, one year grant, but it allowed us to get the results to then apply and get a much bigger funding from a general source, which was the Canadian Institute for Health Research.
And I think the program of ALS Canada is really aimed at helping people start to get results, and then attract other funding from bigger agencies. And therefore, it has an exponential effect, I believe. In that sense, I think every dollar that donors give can have a great impact in ALS research.

Posted in: Research