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VCU doctors first in Va. to administer new ALS treatment

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RICHMOND, Va - Three patients who have the neurodegenerative disease ALS, as known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, became the first people in Virginia to receive a potentially life-changing treatment.  The FDA recently approved the medication Radicava, which has been shown to slow the progress of ALS in patients by up to 33 percent.

ALS attacks the nerve cells in a person's spinal cord and brain that control voluntary muscle function, according to the ALS association.  The degeneration of these nerves impacts a patient's ability to speak, move and breathe.  The disease eventually leads to paralysis.

Midlothian resident Jerry Creehan, who was diagnosed with ALS in January, was one of the patients who received their first infusion of Radicava Wednesday at VCU Medical Center.  His wife Sue, who works as an RN at VCU, sat by his side during the one hour treatment.

"The idea that it's going to slow the progression of this thing down, perhaps to the point that somebody else is going to find a cure, that's just awesome. It fills me with hope," Creehan said.

Prior to his diagnosis, Creehan said he experienced muscle weakness and eventually began falling for no reason.  He and Sue visited doctor after doctor, but he said no one could figure out what was happening.

"When I couldn't get up from those falls was when I really realized I need to see someone more in tune with this problem," Creehan said.

The decision landing him in the care of Dr. Scott Vota and the team at ALS Clinic at VCU Medical Center. Vota and his team became the first doctors in Virginia to administer the Radicava.

"There hasn't been a medicine approved for ALS in 20 years," Dr. Vota said.  "It's going to help them walk longer; It's going to help them eat for longer periods of time; speak, engage with their friends and family."

Most ALS patients die from respirator failure within three to five years of diagnosis, but Dr. Vota said Radicava has shown to add up to 18 months to a patient's life expectancy.  Moreover, he said it helps improve a patient's motor functions, improving their quality of life.

Patients like Creehan will go through 14-day rounds of infusions for the rest of their life.  Creehan is hopeful Radicava will buy him enough time for someone to discover a cure for ALS.

"It instills so much hope," he said.

According to the CDC, 12,000 to 15,000 people in the United States have ALS, and every year doctors tell about 5,000 people that they have it.  Medical professionals said they are still not sure what causes the disease.  Studies continue to show that it could be linked to hereditary and environmental factors, the CDC said.

The ALS Association said symptoms vary from person to person, but that progressive muscle weakness and paralysis occur in every case.  You can learn more about the disease here.