Schut brings hope to ataxia victims

Hope College of Holland, Michigan honored four alumni with Distinguished Alumni Awards on May 3.  And one of those honored alumni is from Maple Lake.

Dr. Lawrence Schut of Maple Lake and three other Hope graduates were presented with the highest honor that alumni can receive from the college in recognition of contributions to society and service to Hope.

Schut, a member of the Class of 1958, is a neurologist currently serving with the Centra Care Clinic in St. Cloud, St. Cloud Hospital and the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis.  His other appointments through the years have included serving as neurological coordinator of the North Memorial Medical Center in Minneapolis from 1972 to 1983; as medical director of the Minneapolis V.A. Medical Center’s Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center from 1983 to 1989; and as medical director of the United Pain Center of United Hospital in St. Paul from 1992 to 1994. Schut was in private practice with the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology from 1967 to 1983.  Between 1967 and 2000, Schut taught at the University of Minnesota Medical School, from which he holds his medical degree. He received the “Outstanding Teacher Award” from the St. Cloud Hospital residency program in 2000.

Schut’s research emphasis has been on a degenerative neurological disorder called hereditary spinocerebellar ataxia, a fatal disease with a personal implication: more than 65 members of his family have been afflicted. He was among the physicians who provided the clinical support to geneticists at the University of Minnesota and Baylor University, who discovered the gene abnormality which causes the disease in 1993.

Schut is also the medical director of the National Ataxia Foundation, from which he received a “Lifetime Commitment Award” in 1999, and is a board member of Audio Scriptures International, located in Escondido, California. His community involvement has included serving as an elder at both Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church and Faith Presbyterian Church.

He and his wife, Loretta, have five children: Sherry Yoder, Maribeth Bolstad, Ronald Schut, David Schut and L. James Schut.

The Schuts lived in the Twin Cities before moving back to the Maple Lake area in 1997. Shut and his wife grew up as neighbors on farms in Silver Creek and now live in the home where Loretta was born. Schut said the move back home was spurred by the opportunity to build a neurology practice with Centra Care in St. Cloud. “This was kind of a compromise to still stay connected to the Twin Cities,” Schut said.  “And I didn’t want to move that far,” added Loretta.

Schut said he and his wife have spent their entire lives together, from living across the road from each other to attending the same schools and churches. “I always said the only thing that was different in our lives was that we went to different bathrooms,” he laughed.

But one thing that was very different was the presence of ataxia in the Schut family. Schut’s father, Henry, was a farmer turned school teacher who taught math at Maple Lake High School and wrote a book in 1978 about the five generations of the Schut family afflicted with ataxia.

“He was always ministering to the needs of people who were dying of ataxia,” Schut said of his father. “It became a part of his life.”

Although none of Schut’s siblings contracted ataxia, two uncles, an aunt, a grandfather, and about 60 of his second and third cousins did. “Of 52 grandchildren in that family, 19 got the disease,” he said.

Ataxia manifests itself as a progressive deterioration in motor skills such as walking and speech, which Schut said is often misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis. The victims of ataxia die in about 10 to 15 years after the appearance of symptoms, usually in an age range of from 20 to 30.  One of those who died was Dr. John Schut, Henry’s brother.

“He always used to come to our farm house and talk about the research he was doing on the disease, only to come down with it himself and he died in 1972,” Schut said.   “He and my father were my inspirations to go into medicine first and then neurology.”

Schut said he was reluctant to go into ataxia research after watching the disease kill his uncle. But a plea to the National Genetic Foundation from a Sioux Falls chiropractor asking for help with the disease led to a call to Schut and a 1970 clinic on ataxia covered by WCCO TV sparked attention. A New York press conference resulted in coverage in national media such as Time magazine and Ladies Home Journal.

Through that exposure, Schut said it became possible to gauge the extent of the disease, which is estimated to afflict 50,000 in the U.S.

Schut continued his research efforts and he and a colleague in Mississippi located the ataxia-causing gene in 1993 after a study of three ataxia-afflicted families that included the Schut family.

“It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Schut said. “It’s passed on from either parent to a daughter or son on a random 50% chance basis.  “Awareness has done a lot to impede the progress of the disease and to limit the numbers. Now there’s a test for the gene before you have children and before you display symptoms of the disease.”

Schut said the gene has been transferred to mice for drug trials at the University of Minnesota that could ultimately lead to a cure for ataxia, which appears in over 20 forms. There is also speculation that Abraham Lincoln may have had a non-fatal form of ataxia.

“Did Lincoln have ataxia?” Schut asked. “That’s the big question I have. They say he walked like a seaman, and had a drawl, which could have been southern. But there has been speculation that he could have had ataxia.”

Schut said his future will continue to involve ataxia research.  “I’d like to taper off my practice somewhat and then become heavily involved with the Ataxia Foundation and help coordinate research efforts around the country,” he said. “And certainly, pushing for a cure is the next step.

“I think we’ll see something in 15 years. I think we’ll see a means by which we can modify the disease. And not through genetic engineering as we predicted. But rather through drugs that would be tailor-made to eliminate the effects of the bad gene.”

Spoken like an award-winning alumni of Hope.