Local attorneys help organize event to boost ALS research
By Sheila Pursglove
Attorneys Amanda Mercer, Knut Hill and David Lowenschuss are involved in the annual Box Car Derby to raise funds in the battle against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
This is the fourth year of the Derby, run by Ann Arbor Active Against ALS (A2A3), a group formed to support friend and neighbor Bob Schoeni, a a University of Michigan economics and public policy professor who was diagnosed with ALS in July 2008. All three attorneys serve on the A2A3 Board.
This year’s Derby is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 24, near the U-M Phi Delta Theta fraternity on South University in Ann Arbor.
The fraternity approached A2A3 with the idea in 2008, as a change from their annual fund-raising walk.
ALS has long been the fraternity’s charitable cause because Lou Gehrig was a member of Phi Delta Theta while a student at Columbia University.
The entrance fee is $30 per team, with each team guaranteed at least three runs; three drivers (or fewer) per team are suggested to allow everyone a chance to drive. Pre-built cars will be available – but creative new cars are strongly encouraged.
The event will be followed by a picnic on the fraternity house lawn and food and drinks also will be available during the event. T-shirts will also be available for purchase.
“This year, instead of push starts we’ve built starting ramps and we’re in the process of building a number of newly designed cars,” says Lowenschuss, president of David H. Lowenschuss P.L.C. in Ann Arbor.
“We’re partnering with the Burns Park Elementary School art teacher and fifth-graders at Burns Park will be decorating 12 of our Box Car Derby cars for the race as part of their class project. Our platinum sponsor this year is Auto Trader, with a very generous donation.”
Having worked for many years in the pharmaceutical industry, Lowenschuss was aware that large pharmaceutical companies were not investing much money or research to find a cure for ALS, whose victims usually die within a few years of diagnosis, steadily losing the ability to move, swallow and finally to breathe.
Almost all the funds for neurodegenerative research – the type of disease ALS is considered – are focused on Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease, he says.
The A2A3 group — formed shortly after Ann Arbor attorney Phil Bowen died of ALS in September 2008 — educates the public about ALS, provides a supportive community environment for Schoeni and his family, and shows people they can make a difference in their community, he says.
A2A3 has funded two different groups: The Program for Neurology Research & Discovery, under Director Dr. Eva Feldman, who is involved in the first stem cell clinical trial for ALS patients; and a nonprofit biotech company ALS TDI that does cure-based ALS research. Lowenschuss provides pro bono corporate legal work to ALS TDI.
Mercer, a neighbor of Schoeni and his wife Gretchen, has also launched the A2A3 Relay Team, a group of six women planning to swim the English Channel this summer and raise $120,000 for ALS research.
“Honestly, I wasn’t too sure about the Box Car Derby – I’d never gone to anything like it,” she says. “But, I’m so glad we decided to participate. Watching the faces of the kids, particularly my own, speeding down that hill – it’s priceless. And, the guys in the fraternity are phenomenal, they really add to the fun.”
Hill, an environmental attorney who earned his law degree from Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del., worked for seven years at Esperion Therapeutics in his native Ann Arbor, where he met Lowenschuss.
Long been committed to charity work through activities and community building, he has worked with Habitat for Humanity, run marathons, and skied across Michigan to raise support for people in need
“I feel honored to be able to help with the Derby for the same reasons I enjoy working with A2A3 throughout the rest of the year – the group’s compassionate spirit is nearly intoxicating, and A2A3’s ability to take a serious disease head on while still making it fun for families and kids throughout the community is unique,” he says. “Each of our events are rewarding for all involved. We know our efforts are focused on finding a cure for this terrible disease and we’re proud that the way we’ve chosen to do that provides hope and shows compassion for those affected.”
For more information, visit A2A3.org.
Beyond the Laboratory
The Program for Neurology & Discovery helps people of all races, genders, ages, geography and walks of life. In return, people throughout the community pitch in to support its researchers and scientists in many unique and significant ways.
Here are some examples of citizens who are helping us make a difference in the fight against disease:
When the filmmaker Ben Byer was diagnosed with ALS at age 31, he decided to document his experience on film. His award-winning film, “Indestructible,” captures his three-year journey of discovery, as he searches through six countries for a treatment to his disease. It’s an expansive portrait of the human drama behind one of modern medicine's greatest challenges
Winner of the Jury Prize for Best Feature Documentary at the 2007 Cinequest Film Festival, “Indestructible” (www.indestructiblefilm.com) will be shown at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 7, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. The event is open to the public, with a suggested donation of $10 per person.
All proceeds will be donated to ALS research centers that are aggressively seeking a cure.
Following the film, there will be a roundtable discussion on the state of ALS research with brief presentations:
- Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology, Director of the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery at the University of Michigan
- John McCarty, Ph.D., Director of Therapeutic Investigations, ALS Therapy Development Institute
There will be time for audience questions.
The film is sponsored by A2A3 (www.a2a3.org), a non-profit organization founded to increase awareness about ALS and raise funds for research.
The Michigan Theatre is located at 603. E. Liberty Street. Map
A Run for the Research Money
It’s only in its second year and it’s already a fall tradition in Ann Arbor. The Big House Big Heart Race drew 7,000 participants. Whether they ran 5K or walked one mile, they ended up on the 50-yard-line of the Big House, watching themselves on the Jumbotron as they crossed the finish line.
It’s fun, healthy and raises money for two great causes: The ALS Clinic of the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery and the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
The event was the idea of local attorney Mike Highfield. He had watched as Phil Bowen, his friend and law partner at Conlin, McKenny & Philbrick, died of ALS. He wanted to do something to stop this dread disease. He teamed up with sports apparel store, Running Fit, and created an event that’s become a favorite of everyone from speed runners to parents pushing kids in strollers.
Next year’s date has already been chosen: September 27. Get more information here.
Charity Event Par Excellence
For the past seven years, the Executive Women's Golf Association of Metro Detroit has conducted an end-of-season tournament to raise money for the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery. This year’s event took place on September 25 at Twin Lakes Golf Club in Oakland Township.
Nearly 60 people teed off. The golfers, sponsors and a silent auction raised $2,400 for neurological research. The EWGA exists to provide a setting for women to learn to play and enjoy the game of golf for business and pleasure. The Metro Detroit Chapter has over 200 members in Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.
A Community Fights Back
When Bob Schoeni was diagnosed with ALS, it was a shock to the Ann Arbor community. A popular professor in public policy and economics at the U-M Institute for Social Research, Bob was a fit, active guy, who loved to exercise and coach kids’ soccer. But ALS can strike anybody.
Bob has touched a lot of lives. When his friends and coworkers heard about his condition, they decided to give back. They organized A2A3 (Ann Arbor Active Against ALS) to raise money for research into finding a cure for the disease. So far they’ve held a neighborhood garage sale and a family field day. There are more fund-raising events on the way.
A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the ALS Clinic, which is a part of the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery. “We are so happy to be working with Bob,” said Dr. Eva L. Feldman, director of the Program. “The courage and energy he has shown in the face of the disease is an inspiration to us all.”
Stem Cells and Salads
Much of the work of the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery takes place in the laboratory, of course. But its educational component can take place anywhere, including at the luncheon table.
Along with co-hosts Susu Sosnick and Pamela Applebaum, Leslie Lewiston Etterbeek invited Dr. Feldman to her Bloomfield Hills home to talk to 45 guests on October 3 about stem cell research and the promise it holds for finding new treatments and cures for neurological disease.
Feldman explained what makes embryonic stem cells so special and the work she hopes to be able to do at the University of Michigan if such research became legal in the state. Just one month later, the voters of Michigan passed a new law lifting the ban on stem cell research.