Oakland Athletics Stephen Piscotty (25) hits in the second inning against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park on August 13, 2019 in San Francisco. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner).

Supercomputers and a cure: A’s ALS Awareness Day takes a leap

Thursday’s event, started to honor Gretchen Piscotty, will pivot from awareness to action

Update: Piscotty will now be signing from 5:05 to 5:25. He was originally set to sign autographs from 4:30 to 5.

OAKLAND — In the middle of explaining how a supercomputer could help cure amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Mike Piscotty paused. He turned his hulking frame in his seat in Section 121, clapped his meaty hands twice and watched his oldest son, Oakland A’s right fielder Stephen, step in against the New York Yankees.

In a rare lull during Oakland’s offensive onslaught in Tuesday’s series opener, Stephen grounded out, and Mike shrugged his shoulders. Over the last week, Stephen has done something more important, something he hasn’t since spring training: Recorded promotional videos.

On Thursday, the A’s right fielder will be the public face of the team’s ALS Awareness Day, but it’s been Mike who has moved the event forward. Fifteen months after his wife and Stephen’s mother, Gretchen, succumbed to the disease, Mike has pivoted the event from awareness to action.

“He’s the main part of it, really,” said Stephen, who was traded from the Cardinals to his hometown A’s in December of 2017 to be with his mother following her diagnosis. “I’m just trying to help promote it.”

When Gretchen lost her battle with the same neurodegenerative disease that felled Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, Stephen vowed to do something more than mourn. He, Mike, A’s president Dave Kaval hosted the A’s ninth-annual ALS Awareness Day in Gretchen’s memory on Sept. 3. The main theme of the day was to draw attention to the disease and to the impediments to finding a cure, namely that with about 20,000 cases in the United States at any given time, there’s little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop a test, much less a treatment.

Over the past year, Mike Piscotty helped launch a 501(c)3 organization, the ALS Cure Project, with a defined focus. In conjunction with the ALS Association Golden West Chapter and ALS TDI, the organization is embarking on a nationwide project: Finding a reliable test for the disease through the discovery of biomarkers, and using the world’s third-fastest supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore Labs to do it. It’s the first step to finding a cure, and Thursday’s ALS Awareness Day will be dedicated to funding that project.

“Bringing Lawrence Livermore Labs into the game is game-changing for us,” Mike said. “The collaborations we have with ALS Golden West Chapter and ALS TDI is game-changing. We really feel like we’re bringing a lot of hope, and there’s a lot of optimism in what this collaboration is going to do.”

Biomarkers are substances whose presence indicates a disease. When a doctor tests for prostate cancer, the test doesn’t look for specific cancer cells, but for a biomarker — specifically prostate-specific antigen in the blood.

There are biomarkers for other neurodegenerative diseases, which is why they are tested for before ALS is diagnosed. There is no known biomarker for ALS, which presents in a variety of ways, but all with the same cruelty of trapping a person’s healthy mind in a deteriorating body. Gretchen’s ALS was particularly fast and brutal, as she declined over the course of 16 months after diagnosis, while Gehrig’s acted over a period of two years.

“ALS is the grab-bag disease that you have when you don’t have MS or Parkinson’s or Lyme Disease, or any of the other neurological diseases,” Mike said. “Sadly, you’re hoping it’s one of the others before you get there.”

In his 34 years working in IT at the Lawrence Livermore Labs, Mike has seen what kind of power the facility’s $430 million supercomputer can muster, but for computational biologists to find biomarkers, that computer needs data.

“One of the difficulties in getting data is that, when you take a sample from an individual, you need to process it in the same way, to be able to compare one person’s sample to another’s,” Mike said. “The amount of time you leave those samples out before you process it, matters. The chemicals in that vial are changing. We need to have standardized samples.”

The ALS Cure Project aims to create a robust data set through standardized sample-collection techniques, while also taking, testing and tracking samples from the same patients over time. All of that data will then be fed into the supercomputer to analyze, and eventually, find a reliable biomarker. From that, a test can be developed, and then the search for a cure can begin.

“It’s a computer that can analyze data that others can’t,” Stephen said. “If we get enough datasets in the program, we can help figure it out.”

The standardized protocol that will be implemented at all of the ALSA Golden West Chapter’s 18 certified clinics across six states will cost $25,000 per clinic.

To help pay for the protocol implementation, supercomputer use and computational biologists’ time, half of the A’s 50/50 raffle on Thursday will go to ALS Cure Project, along with a portion of tickets bought for Thursday’s game through the ALSA Golden West Chapter’s website. Piscotty will be signing autographs from 5:05 to 5:25 p.m. on the Championship Plaza patio for fans who make a $40 donation. Fans who can’t make it to the game can also donate through Piscotty’s new GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/piscottyals2019), and on Sept. 2, the ALS Cure Project will host a charity golf tournament at Silverado Resort Golf Club in Napa (details can be found at www.alscure.net).

“Once we uncover these biomarkers, drug and pharma companies are going to have a target, and we’re going to be able to get a cure,” Mike said. “But, we have to do that hard work first.”

rgorcey@sfexaminer.com

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