In 2001, family and friends of Jim Himelic embarked on a mission to raise $1 million to eradicate amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - also known as Lou Gehrig's disease - in memory of the Pima County Juvenile Court judge.

As the 12th annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic approaches, they are $250,000 short of their monetary goal and have leveraged initial funds into local research that may be significant not only for those with ALS, but also for people with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative disorders.

"This is definitely something that got started in recognition of my father, but I would like to think it has evolved into something greater that encompasses the entire Southern Arizona ALS community and beyond," said Jim Himelic, one of Himelic's six children with Diana Himelic Dawley, and a board member of the Jim Himelic Foundation.

"We are working with the University of Arizona to drum up seed funding to leverage that capital into larger grants at the state and federal level."

Jim, 28, considers the foundation a grass-roots effort that illustrates the consequences of relatively small funds in the research realm.

"Sometimes you kind of get a sense of being overwhelmed; you wonder about what kind of impact we can have here in Tucson, Arizona, raising $60,000 to $75,000 a year, but you have to remind yourself that it is much more than that," he said.

Research by Daniela C. Zarnescu, a UA associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, neuroscience and neurology, is one example of that impact. Starting with $25,000 from the foundation in 2008, Zarnescu developed a drosophila (fruit fly) model as a model of ALS. The fruit fly model has a high degree of similarity to human disease genes and provides a cost-effective model in which to study the pathways involving motor neurons affected by ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases, according to Zarnescu.

Working in the Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory (formerly the UA Department of Neurology's stem cell laboratory) with continued support from the foundation, she has since received a $375,000 grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association and tested the effects of 1,200 FDA-approved compounds on the fruit fly model.

Zarnescu has discovered several compounds currently used in humans for other diseases that may be useful for developing ALS therapies.

"The end point would be to come up with something that would improve people's lives. A cure is the big goal, but we will be happy if we can find something that will be therapeutic to some extent," Zarnescu said. "We are working on the ALS model, but this work can have an impact on a larger scale for understanding aging as well as other neurodegenerative diseases, since aging is the biggest risk factor for neurodegenerative disorders."

For researchers today, funding from private foundations and donors is more essential than ever before, Zarnescu said. The $25,000 in foundation seed money enabled her to build the fruit fly model and attain preliminary data necessary to apply for more grants.

"Money from donors is really important, particularly in this economic climate where government agencies have reduced their funding," Zarnescu said. "Without grass-roots support from foundations like this, it is really difficult. This kind of support is instrumental to grow projects that are valuable like this one. It is essential for supporting research, especially locally."

The Jim Himelic Neuromuscular Research Laboratory also is funding research by Dr. Miguel Estevez. The foundation is also supporting research at several other laboratories and clinical research by neurologists Dr. Katalin Scherer and Dr. Holli Horak at the MDA/ALS Center at UPH Hospital (now The University of Arizona Medical Center-South Campus).

A look at volunteer opportunities / A11

If You Go

The 12th annual Jim Himelic Memorial Golf Classic, Dinner and Auction

• What: Dinner and auction.

• When: June 1 - 6 to 7:30 p.m. silent auction; 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner, live auction and dancing to live music by The Roadhouse.

• Where: The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, 3800 E. Sunrise Drive.

• Cost: $65 per person; $75 per person after May 28; free for Golf Classic golfers.

Golf Classic

• When: June 2 - 7 a.m. registration; 8 a.m. shotgun start.

• Where: The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa.

• Cost: $175 per person; $700 per foursome.

• About the Golf Classic: Festivities include an 18-hole scramble on the Jack Nicklaus course and a post-tournament lunch. For reservations or more information about the foundation or the Golf Classic, go to or call 907-5235.

Contact Loni Nannini at