The Neural Network

GNO, Inc.’s NeuroNOLA Initiative Is a True Meeting of the Minds


t might be strange to think about, but everything you know–about yourself, about others and about the world around you–is perceived, processed and controlled by a roughly three-pound cluster of cells that sits inside your head. 

The human brain–the central component of the nervous system–is composed of blood, stem cells, neurons and glial cells that work together to transmit and receive chemical and electrical signals, which are then sent throughout the body. These signals control every thought, every action, every sensation—everything ranging from excitement, fear, hunger, pain and euphoria. Every breath you take, whether you notice it or not, was signaled by your brain.

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But sometimes, these processes can be disrupted. As the name implies, a neurodegenerative disease attacks, breaks down or impairs neurological function, and highly specialized treatment for neurological conditions can be required for the rest of a person’s life. 

In New Orleans, several healthcare providers, universities, private companies and nonprofit organizations have dedicated their expertise and resources to the research and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, as well as overall neurological science. And while they’re all doing critically important work on their own, they together form a collective that can not only make a substantial impact on research and treatments, but which can establish Greater New Orleans as a hub of neurological expertise. That collective, pioneered by GNO, Inc., is known as NeuroNOLA.

“NeuroNOLA is a collaborative that brings together the region’s significant base of neurological research and clinical expertise to catalyze true cooperation within neurosciences,” says Harrison Crabtree, Business Development and Research Manager at GNO, Inc.

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Crabtree says there are several conditions that support Greater New Orleans becoming a national neurosciences destination. First is a growth in the number of people dealing with neurodegenerative diseases, both nationally and globally. Five million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, one million from Parkinson’s, 400,000 from multiple sclerosis (MS), and 30,000 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), to name a few. As the number of diagnoses rises, so too does the demand for an accessible hub of care in the Gulf South.

Next, there’s the wealth of local expertise that has already laid the groundwork for regional expansion. Crabtree says Greater New Orleans benefits from a wide range of organizations that are currently leading the fight against neurodegenerative diseases, while the region’s concentration of higher-education institutions–such as Xavier, Loyola and Tulane–could yield even more local talent to usher in the next generation of innovation.

On the patient front, hospital systems like LCMC Health, Tulane and Ochsner are providing high-quality clinical and hospital care to patients diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases, serving as a critical bridge between research and treatment. These industry leaders are already being recognized for their efforts: this year, Ochsner Health announced that the Ochsner Neuroscience Institute was designated as a “Comprehensive Care Center” by the Parkinson’s Foundation, making it the only health system in Louisiana to hold this distinction. 

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Dr. David Houghton, Chief of Movement and Memory Disorders at Ochsner, says that all stakeholders in the NeuroNOLA initiative have deep experience in the neurosciences and bring unique points of view and expertise to the group. That includes clinic centers at Ochsner, which have been recognized as Centers of Excellence for treatment of epilepsy, MS, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as the Bazan Laboratory at LSU and the Tulane Brain Institute. 

“Each brings unique gifts to this collective,” Houghton says. “And important university partners like Xavier and UNO with their lab expertise will provide cross-institutional seeding of new projects with unique new funding streams for growth.”

But NeuroNOLA also brings in thought leaders from outside the doctor’s office and university labs, and Houghton emphasizes the equally critical role of companies that are developing new technologies to assist in diagnosis and treatment.

AxoSim, located in the New Orleans BioInnovation Center on Canal Street, is a biotechnology company that helps facilitate breakthroughs in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases with cutting edge technology. Its NerveSim and BrainSim platforms, colloquially known as “organ-on-a-chip” technologies, deliver clinically relevant data to assist drug discovery and developmental efforts by mimicking the structure and function of the human nervous system.

In the same building, another organization called Pine Biotech operates a data analysis platform used by various research groups to analyze, manage and integrate data for more effective and comprehensive research.

“For me, I’m most excited about how technology weaves its way into our care and research models in neurodegenerative diseases,” Houghton says. “I spend a good portion of my time at Ochsner working on new care models using digital connections to help diagnose and treat neurological disease.” 

Advancing the fight against neurodegenerative disease also requires public awareness and advocacy, which is where local nonprofit organizations are leading their own charge. Houghton says that partnerships with nonprofits “allow us to stretch the halo effects of these programs into new cutting-edge projects—with greater national recognition and further economic support.”  

Steve Gleason, who famously blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt that was recovered for a touchdown when he played in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. From the moment he was diagnosed, Gleason vowed that he would never give up and would fight for himself, his family and everyone living with the disease. He and his wife, Michel, founded Team Gleason, a nonprofit with the mission of bringing more attention to the disease and empowering people with ALS to live purposeful lives.

Through a diverse and broad portfolio of programming, Team Gleason “brings assistive technology, equipment and robust support services into the hands of ALS patients” with the goal of helping those living with ALS not just survive, but thrive.

“For the past decade, Steve and Team Gleason have been leading in bringing innovative solutions and unprecedented research to ALS from our home base right here in New Orleans,” says Clare Durrett, strategic advisor at Team Gleason and managing coordinator at Answer ALS, a nonprofit that’s working to build the most comprehensive clinical, genetic molecular and biomedical study of ALS.

Durrett says Team Gleason is excited and proud to play a role in NeuroNOLA and to help make the Greater New Orleans region a destination where patients can receive unparalleled options for their neuro-related health care. “It has been Steve’s and our mission to help foster expanded services and solutions for not only ALS, but for all associated neurodegenerative diseases in the New Orleans area,” she says. 

Because of companies and organizations like these, Crabtree says there’s a strong “opportunity for ownership” for the Greater New Orleans region. 

“The ‘competition’ is concentrated on the coasts and in the north,” he says. “That presents Greater New Orleans with the opportunity become the ‘destination center’ for neurodegenerative research and clinical treatment in the Gulf South.​”

Not only would this bode well for patients in the south, but establishing New Orleans as a hub for the treatment and research of neurodegenerative disease could yield a substantial economic impact that elevates the quality of life and opportunity for all residents. A successful destination for neurodegenerative disease treatment–even one with just a tenth of the number of direct jobs at other institutions such as MD Anderson–would generate jobs, income and tax revenue, creating a stronger economic appeal for more companies and organizations to focus their work in the region.

The research and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like PD, ALS and others–as well as the care required by those affected by them–require a multi-faceted community approach. Partnership, collaboration and a pooling of resources and information can advance our understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, and with NeuroNOLA functioning as the glial cells of this neural network, the breakthrough that current and future patients need could be discovered right here in the Crescent City.

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