Colorado ALS expert: Stephen Hawking’s death brings new attention to mysterious disease

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Stephen Hawking, a man regarded as a genius for his work as a theoretical physicist, died last week after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The neurological disease that attacks muscle nerves was unknown to many Americans before famed baseball player Lou Gehrig contracted it. He died in 1941.

More than seven decades later, researchers still have a lot of work to do.

“We don’t even know what causes ALS right now,” said Swedish Medical Center Dr. Alex Dietz. “If we don’t know what causes it, it’s really hard to find a cure.”

Dietz is the ALS medical director at the Colorado Neurologic Institute, an organization that offers a wide range of specialists who focus on the various symptoms of ALS.

There are two medications used to treat ALS.

Dietz said a pill has long been available that works to extend a patient’s life. An infusion, approved by federal regulators in 2017, can slow the pace of the disability, Dietz said.

An average lifespan after diagnosis is two to three years, making Hawking’s case remarkable.

“For him to live with the disease for as long as he did is absolutely extraordinary,” Dietz said.

Along with the 2017 progress in treatment, the Ice Bucket Challenge is offering hope.

The viral social media effort raised millions of dollars for research. It has allowed doctors to identify a new gene that is giving experts at Swedish Medical Center a better understanding of ALS.

ALS patients only have a 10 percent chance of living more than a decade, according to the ALS Association.

Hawking lived with the disease for 55 years. His is a life doctors have studied while hoping for medical breakthroughs as groundbreaking as Hawking’s own astrophysical theories.

Walks to Defeat ALS will help raise funds for research.