SpongeBob Squarepants creator Stephen Hillenburg — nominated for nine Emmys for his contributions to the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon — announced Monday he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological illness commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS.
In a shot press statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, Hillenburg, 55, revealed his diagnosis while thanking fans for their support, and indicated his work on the long-running children’s program is still a priority.
“I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS,” Hillenburg’s statement reads. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants and my other passions for as long as I am able. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time.”
According to the ALS Association, the disease was first discovered by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in 1869, though the diagnosis of famed baseball player Gehrig in 1939 brought widespread attention to the ailment. The organization describes ALS as “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord” involving the breakdown of motor neurons, which are responsible for carrying signals from the brain to the muscles.
Approximately 15 new cases are found each day, resulting in around 6,000 diagnosed in the U.S. per year. Half of those with ALS live approximately three years after their initial diagnosis, while 20 percent live five years or more; 10 percent live more than 10 years.
In recent years, focus on ALS research has intensified in the public eye thanks to the popular Ice Bucket Challenge, which saw numerous internet users and celebrities — including Lady Gaga, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Chris Pratt, to name a few — pouring buckets of ice water over their heads to raise awareness about the deadly disease.
NFL veteran Steve Gleason also documented his journey with ALS in the documentary Gleason, which premiered to acclaim at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Since its debut in 1999, SpongeBob has evolved into a worldwide franchise, spawning multiple big screen adaptations (both box office hits), video games, and even theme park attractions. A third feature film is planned for a 2019 release, while the show’s upcoming 11th season — reportedly featuring 26 half-hour episodes, according to showrunner Vincent Waller — is set to debut later in 2017.