CLOVIS, Calif. -- May is ALS awareness month. Doctors diagnose 6,000 American patients with the debilitating disease every year and the life expectancy is variable, but usually two to five years.
A Valley patient may be on the road to the first ever treatment slowing the disease.
Mark Harrison is taking a few small, but significant steps forward in his battle against ALS.
The neurological disease has trapped his perfectly functioning mind inside a body gradually sapped of strength over the last few years until it left him helpless in the gym.
"I couldn't do a push-up," he said. "That startled me."
The official diagnosis came last March and it devastated him and his wife, Arlene.
"You know it's frustrating, it's upsetting, but it hurts me more seeing other people hurt from my condition," Mark said. "That bothers me more than the illness."
"Once you're given that diagnosis it's truly a death sentence," Arlene Harrison said. "You know, there's no cure."
Mark got to the point where he couldn't walk a single step. He spiraled through depression and anger, before finding a reason for hope.
His sister Debbie helped him get into the ALS Brainstorm clinical trial at U.C. Irvine -- where doctors engineer a therapy from the patient's own stem cells.
"These stem cells then secrete growth factors to promote motor cell regeneration, reduce inflammation and the idea is that their motor cells can live longer," said Dr. Namita Goyal, a neurologist on the study.
A month after his first stem cell injection, Mark's on his feet again. He can start to roll over if he's lying down, and Arlene says his speech is better.
The clinical trial lasts a year and it's free, but making the trip to Irvine is taxing with Mark's special needs.
"You think traveling with a toddler is hard?" Arlene said. "This is 20 times harder."
But already well worth the effort.
Mark's hoping to take a lot more steps soon, and maybe even do a pushup.
"I'm really looking forward to the next couple months to see what we can accomplish," he said.
The ALS Therapy Development Institute and the ALS Association fund research and help patients and their families. You can check out their information at www.als.net or www.alsa.org.
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