January 16, 2015

Milestone year

The Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center marks 25 years of progress toward a cure for the degenerative brain condition

What a difference 25 years can make.

It was during an old-timers game at the Metrodome that Minnesota Twins great Bob Allison first noticed problems with his coordination. Later, family and friends noticed a stagger in his walk, and his speech was often slurred.

Eventually, Allison learned that he had a progressive form of ataxia known as olivopontocerebellar atrophy. At the time, he and his family had never heard of ataxia and didn’t know what the diagnosis would mean for Allison’s life. But they soon found out: ataxia destroys muscle coordination and over time can make walking, talking, holding objects, and even swallowing monumental—and eventually insurmountable—tasks. There is no known cure.

The news was devastating. So in 1990, Allison helped to found the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center (BAARC) at the University of Minnesota, which even then was known as the best place to find information about why ataxia happens and how to treat it. He was joined in his efforts by his wife, Betty; sons, Mark, Kirk, and Kyle; and former teammates Jim Kaat and Frank Quilici.

Archival photo of Bob Allison and sons
Archival photo of Bob Allison and sons
Although Allison died of complications of ataxia in 1995 at age 60, his legacy lives on through BAARC’s work. As it rounds out its 25th year, board chair emeritus Mark Allison says there’s plenty to be proud of. Today, largely because of BAARC’s support, a renowned ataxia research team led by the U’s Harry Orr is making big strides toward a gene therapy that could become the first-ever ataxia treatment.

“There are a lot of good things happening,” says Allison, who recently stepped down after more than two decades as the BAARC board’s chair. “We’re hoping to have the big celebration someday when we cure this disease. That’s the next step.”

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