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A powerful swing, ferocious base-running skills and an amazing backhanded catch during the Twins' 1965 World Series appearance made Bob Allison a Minnesota baseball legend.
But during a 1987 "old-timer's game" at the Metrodome, the accumulated years couldn't explain Allison's discomfiting loss of coordination as he returned to the ballfield. After two years of seeing doctors, as symptoms grew to include slurred speech and a stagger in his walk, he got a grim diagnosis:
He had a type of ataxia, a degenerative disease that can cause a lack of coordination, speech and gait difficulties, tremors and heart problems. Allison died from complications of the disease in 1995 at the age of 60.
However, the three-time All-Star's fight against ataxia didn't die with him. He and his family founded the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center at the University of Minnesota, which has helped make the state a neuroscience research hub. A prestigious international honor won recently by a U scientist reflects the substantial strides made here in understanding ataxia and offers hope for a brighter future for those diagnosed with the disease.
The award, known as the Kavli Prize, "honors scientists for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience." Harry Orr of the U's Medical School was one of four laureates in neuroscience and one of 11 Kavli Prize recipients overall in 2022.
Norway's Academy of Science and Letters appoints the prize selection committees, and its royal family presides over the ceremony. The batting average of Kavli laureates who go on to win a Nobel Prize is impressive. Sixty-five scientists from 13 countries have been honored since the Kavli prizes were first awarded in 2008. Ten of them would also win Nobel acclaim.
Orr was honored in Norway earlier this month, along with the other laureates. He is the director of the U Medical School's Institute for Translational Neuroscience. The Kavli selection committee lauded him and the three other laureates for improving the understanding of inherited brain disorders through "novel genetic approaches ... leading to improved care for patients and their families."
Orr and another Kavli laureate, Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Huda Zoghbi, collaboratively "discovered ATAXIN1, the gene underlying the neurodegenerative disease spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) that causes loss of balance and coordination."
That isn't the specific type of ataxia that Allison had, but the findings nevertheless yield broader insights critical in developing treatments. Clinical trials are getting underway for some potential therapies.
"What we were recognized for is the totality of our work," said Orr, who has been researching ataxia for over three decades.
Orr cited U colleagues Lisa Duvick and Dr. H. Brent Clark, in particular, for their contributions and dedication to the research honored by the Kavli selection committee. He also lauded the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center's longstanding support in making Minnesota a research standout.
The prize is "recognition of a lot of people's work," Orr said.
Roughly 50,000 Americans have some form of ataxia, according to the U. That's "three times the number of individuals who suffer from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS)," another degenerative condition that afflicted a baseball legend.
"Fifty percent of ataxias are hereditary. To date, there is no known cure," according to the U.
That a Minnesota scientist is among the elite group of Kavli laureates is worth celebrating. The award enhances the state's ability to attract top-flight medical researchers. That's good for patients and powers the economy. The award also reflects what can be accomplished when a family and a community are committed to fighting a devastating disease.
Allison, along with his wife, sons and several former teammates, founded the ataxia research center in 1990. The center has raised about $8.8 million since its founding, with studies it has funded helping attract millions more in federal grants.
Allison once roomed with Twins great Harmon Killebrew, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. "His size, speed, strength and athleticism inspired awe," the organization notes, and he was known for a fierce work ethic as well.
Allison's research center brought the same qualities to the fight against ataxia. The Kavli award reflects Minnesota's major league status for medical research. The legendary outfielder helped make it so, a remarkable legacy.