Barrington resident Doug McConnell is one of the few people in the world who have swum the English Channel and also conquered Hawaii’s Ka’iwi Channel, Catalina Channel, and Tampa Bay. His inspiration was a passion for raising awareness and funds for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. McConnell lost his father, Dave, to the disease in 2006, and recently his sister Ellen, in 2018. A competitive swimmer for more than 50 years, McConnell co-founded A Long Swim to raise money for ALS research by completing marathon-distance swims.
This year, McConnell will embark on a 13-mile “Northwestern-to-Northwestern” Lake Michigan swim to raise funding for collaborative ALS research directed by Hande Ozdinler, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Ozdinler is a member of the University’s Chemistry of Life Processes Institute (CLP) here team scientists from across disciplines engage to find new cures for ALS and other diseases.
“I am honored to have the support of A Long Swim and to have the opportunity to initiate and foster new collaborations,” says Ozdinler. “Team-based science is the only way to defeat ALS. Our lab has made tremendous progress in understanding why motor neurons die in ALS and other motor neuron diseases, such as HSP and PLS, and through our affiliation with the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute. The discoveries will also have implications in HSP, PLS, and other motor neuron diseases. I look forward to making even greater strides to identify novel drugs and biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases.”
McConnell will begin his fundraising swim at Northwestern’s Evanston campus and finish at the Feinberg School of Medicine near Navy Pier in Chicago.
“We began funding the efforts of Hande nine years ago, since then her lab has pioneered the study of upper motor neurons and identified the mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases,” says McConnell. “When it comes to ALS, Hande is a fearless and brilliant champion. We’re very lucky to have her in our corner.”
The Ozdinler Lab has established several collaborations with CLP faculty members. Together with Richard B. Silverman, PhD, the inventor of Lyrica, the team is developing compounds that could have an effect on degenerating upper motor neurons. Last year, the project received a $3.1 million drug discovery grant from the National Institutes of Health. Collaborations with Neil Kelleher, PhD, and Shad Thaxton, PhD, have led, respectively, to new discoveries for ALS biomarkers and the investigation of the mode of disease transmission via exosomes.
“CLP is home to many great and collaborative scientists who are willing to work and discover together. This is how we will move the field forward,” says Dr. Ozdinler.
In addition to completing the English Channel swim, McConnell and his team have completed five other swims considered “marathons” with distances ranging from 15-32 miles and has raised more than $1 million in support of ALS since 2011.
McConnell’s quest didn’t end there. He is continuing the mission of A Long Swim, “To use marathon-distance swimming to raise funds for collaborative ALS research.” With the net proceeds of A Long Swim’s activities, it specifically funds the Ellen McConnell Blakeman Research Fellowship in the Ozdinler Lab, which is named after McConnell’s sister. The recipient of the Fellowship, Dr. Mukesh Gautam, has also received international recognition for his scientific work.
ALS is a disorder that disrupts the ability of nerves to transmit signals to the muscles. As a result, muscle groups degrade to the point where digesting food and even breathing are impossible. Based on U.S. population studies, a little over 6,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year. (That means that someone is diagnosed with ALS every 90 minutes. Sadly, someone also dies from ALS every 90 minutes.) It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time. A Long Swim was formed as the perfect contrast to the effects of disease; while an ALS patient gradually loses the use of their muscles, swimming requires us to use all of our muscles, all the time.
A Long Swim continues to host open water swims, and tackle challenges in several open water adventures raising money for ALS. McConnell and his team of volunteers research, plan and execute swims across the globe and maneuver wildlife including jellyfish and sharks. They pledge to continue to host events and participate in fundraisers until patients become ALS survivors.
Join the Zoom Launch Party!
On September 9 at 7:00 p.m. CST A Long Swim will host a Zoom Launch Party for the Northwestern to Northwestern Swim. To join, click here and enter the meeting ID: 998 5329 6108 and Passcode: 240477.
About Chemistry of Life Processes Institute
Chemistry of Life Processes Institute at Northwestern University is where new cures and biomedical discoveries begin. The Institute’s 65 faculty represent more than 20 University departments that span the schools of arts and sciences, engineering and medicine. CLP provides comprehensive support for high-impact team science through four research centers of excellence, seed grants for collaborative science, expert project support, and eight world-class research resources for innovation and translation.
CLP accelerates innovation and translation at Northwestern. Since its founding, the Institute has advanced more than 75 new drug candidates, medical devices and diagnostic tools towards clinical trials. CLP investigators have spun out 27 new companies that have attracted more than $2 billion in investment. The Institute’s rigorous training programs prepares future scientists to work across disciplines to lead next generation science, medicine, and technology breakthroughs.