Posts Tagged ‘stem cell research’

Hope vs Hype

July 12, 2012

I hear and read it over and over again – cynicism in the spinal cord injury community when talking about a cure. I understand where it comes from.  Decades of time and billions of dollars that so far have not delivered a viable regenerative therapy. In my own experience, I remember hearing promises of “another 5 years” as a reasonable timeline to anticipate cures. That was 10 years ago.

Today’s world of constant media bombardment only fuels the hype. Almost daily we read stories of breakthroughs that may “one day” give paralyzed people the ability to walk again. So far, none of those predictions have come to reality.

It’s not just the media that misleads us. Around the world there are doctors and clinics offering stem cell and other specialized treatments, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and so far showing no verifiable efficacy. I have seen people with SCI work hard to raise the money for these therapies, head overseas with high hopes, and return home with nothing to show. They are reluctant and even embarrassed, understandably, to tell their supporters that the treatment failed.

And finally, we have some scientists who exaggerate the potential of their research, most often in an effort to raise more funding dollars. I find this to be the most unethical of the misleading information. The spinal cord injury community is a very vulnerable population. Many are desperate for any positive news that would give them hope of being able to breathe on their own, or use their hands. If they’re not yet cynical, they will hang on for dear life to a scientist who promises recovery.

In fact, we don’t have any therapy at this point, other than intensive exercise to promote neuroplasticity, that offers meaningful recovery of function. How do we fight our way through the hype to find good science worthy of our support?  The very best way is to take the time to read and understand published scientific papers showing verifiable data. Not all of us have the time or mental capacity for that task, however; we need trusted community leaders who will sift through the data and advise us.

Fortunately, this is the path that Unite 2 Fight Paralysis has chosen. We know that as a community we become empowered through education. We offer resources that will bring everyone up to speed on the science that as of today truly holds the most promise. For starters, visit U2FP Board Member Chris Powell’s SCI Research and Advocacy blog, and plan to join us in Irvine, California for the 7th annual Working 2 Walk Symposium.


Speaking Truth to Power

May 7, 2012

If we’re ever going to gain traction as Cure Warriors, we’ve got to speak out to the various individual and organizational leaders in the spinal cord injury community.  Thanks to the persistent efforts of Dennis Tesolat (also known as Mr. “Stem Cells & Atom Bombs”), there is a respectful yet pointed appeal to the Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) that as of today boasts over 700 signatures from around the world.

The Foundation has long proclaimed its vision to be “a world without paralysis after spinal cord injury”.  That’s our goal, too, so several months ago Dennis and a few of his friends sent RHF’s CEO a simple request:

  • “Please outline your spending on translational research for central nervous system regeneration, i.e. a cure for spinal cord injury.”

The response failed to outline any specifics other than what’s available in their annual report, i.e. – “81% goes to charitable programs.”  Dennis wasn’t satisfied, so he decided to get organized and continue to ask questions.  He asked for more details on RHF’s spending, and for Rick to publicly answer the questions at next week’s Interdependence Conference of SCI leaders.

I imagine most of my readers have already signed the appeal, but if not, there is still time if you do it today.  It’s an easy, one-click process from the Stem Cells & Atom Bombs website.  Follow this link.

The Rick Hansen Foundation earns annual revenues in excess of $20 million, 71% of which comes from Canadian national and provincial government funds.  This is an extraordinary amount of money, and with these types of resources the Foundation should respond to the wishes of the SCI community.

We respect the work that RHF has done to improve accessibility and quality of life for people living with SCI.  At this point in time, however, with so much promising regenerative research on the cusp of translation, it’s time for the Foundation to turn its attention and its resources to the achievement of a cure.  As survivors of spinal cord injury and family members, we have the right, and even moreso the responsibility, to speak up to those in power at the Rick Hansen Foundation.

Our Brother’s Keeper

March 4, 2012

Several years ago I read a book titled “His Brother’s Keeper” by Jonathan Weiner.  It’s the true story of one man’s race against time to try and find a cure for his brother, who was stricken with ALS at the age of 29.  The book is subtitled, “One Family’s Journey to the Edge of Medicine”.  Indeed, this is where we must travel if we’re going to solve the neurological puzzles of paralysis from spinal cord injury.

As a writer, Weiner has an amazing ability to explain the complexities of neuroscience in terms that can be readily understood by a lay reader.  He also does a terrific job of portraying the impatience and urgency that patients and family members feel when confronted with the glacial pace of advancing therapies from bench to bedside.  The story repeatedly raises the philosophical question of how best to advance science, and towards the end quotes Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania:

“Should the pace of medical research be determined by people desperately afflicted and their kin?  Is that the best way to move the science?  My argument would be no.  Just as it’s hard to do the best science when you’re heavily invested and have a financial interest in what’s going on, it’s very hard to interpret results when your vision is completely clouded up by love of your subject.”

Caplan’s point is well taken.  In our own SCI community we have seen many patients spend tens of thousands of dollars on unproven therapies that provide little or no benefit.  At times advocates have allowed passion to drive their research investments rather than reason.

On the other hand, to my knowledge Caplan is not living with a debilitating or life-threatening condition.  It’s frustrating and tiresome to sit in your wheelchair and listen to scientists, funders, and regulators counsel patience.  And of course we have the problem of our big-name charities losing sight of their initial purpose (see my previous post, “Chase the Vision, Not the Money”).

It’s time for the stakeholders in the SCI cure effort to keep watch over each other:

  • For researchers to share their scientific results openly and honestly;
  • For advocates to educate themselves about the science of regenerative medicine;
  • For charities and patient advocacy organizations to operate with transparency and purpose;
  • For regulators to consider the voice of the patient when evaluating risk and reward;
  • For those living with SCI to speak up and put a face on spinal cord injury.

Kudos to Dr. Keith Tansey for writing so eloquently on this subject here.  I met Dr. Tansey at Working 2 Walk in 2011, and I know that he is a compassionate professional who understands the frustrations of those living with SCI.  He, too, believes that the science will advance more quickly and safely if we as a community work together, with ongoing, open dialogue and a sense that we are “Our Brother’s Keeper”.

Home for the Holidays

December 28, 2011

On December 1, 2002, my son suffered a C6/7 spinal cord injury when a wheel came off an oncoming truck and landed on top of his pickup.  9 years later, having graduated from law school and secured a full-time job, he came home to celebrate the holidays with his family.  Together we reflected on the remarkable journey he had taken to work his way back to physical, emotional, and financial independence.

If there is such a thing as being lucky in the wake of a spinal cord injury, it applies to my son.  Had his neck broken just a few millimeters higher, he would not have the use of his hands or arms.  He used every ounce of his energy and determination to achieve his goal of independence, but still could not have made it without the extraordinary support of his family, friends, community, and numerous strangers.  Such good fortune does not fall to many who are stricken with SCI.

While we celebrate and take pride in his accomplishments, we know that he represents the minority of those living with SCI.  According to the National SCI Statistical Center, at 20 years post-injury, only 35% of persons with a spinal cord injury are employed.  This statistic is not just a function of injury level; the employment rate for people with paraplegia is only slightly higher than for those with tetraplegia.  There are numerous social, psychological, and economic barriers that conspire to keep persons with SCI out of the work force.

The unemployment rate is but one of many “invisible” secondary complications of spinal cord injury.  While the media is full of “inspiring” stories about people living with SCI, much less is said about what goes on behind the scenes.  No one wants to start a pity party, but if we’re going to achieve “cure consciousness”, we need to speak the truth about:

  • the loss of bowel, bladder & sexual function;
  • psychological trauma & suicide;
  • loss of time, productivity, and often independence;
  • a host of other issues that accompany spinal cord injury.

For every heartwarming story in the media, there are hundreds more untold about people and the daily realities of SCI that no one ever sees.  The public is often led to believe that one can achieve recovery through hard work and determination alone; if this were true, the majority of survivors would be up and walking around.

I am extremely proud of what my son has accomplished since his injury, and at the same time appreciate that it was made possible by some good fortune and a remarkable support system that augmented his efforts.  I also know that he would readily embrace the opportunity for regenerative therapies that could give him back a healthy body.

A Revolution of Empowerment

November 17, 2011

In my opening remarks at Working 2 Walk, I spoke about the legacy of Justin Dart.  If you don’t know the name, Justin Dart is widely considered to be the Father of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he was a lifelong disability and human rights activist.

Mr. Dart was stricken with polio at the age of 18, and this life-altering event set him on a remarkable life journey.  A series of encounters with other polio patients, with the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, and with 3rd world “rehabilitation” centers charted a course that eventually led to passage of the ADA.

Throughout his life of advocacy, Justin Dart embraced the principle of inclusiveness and shared his vision of a “revolution of empowerment” – a revolution that would “eliminate obsolete thoughts and systems”, and give every human being the right to develop his/her capacities to the fullest.  Shortly before his death in 2002, he published a manifesto of extraordinary wisdom and lessons for the future, “Toward a Culture of Individualized Empowerment” (it’s a worthwhile read).

One of the most humbling and frustrating aspects of paralysis is the loss of power, and in many cases, independence.  If Justin Dart were alive today, I have no doubt that he would join our effort to revolutionize the way we look at paralysis.  To teach the world that it is a curable condition, that we, the grassroots advocates, the cutting-edge research scientists, and the pro-active investors, can empower ourselves by organizing, educating and advocating until a cure is achieved.

On another note, this week’s news that Geron is dropping their clinical trial in spinal cord injury shocked and angered much of the community.  Personally, while this development is disappointing, I don’t find it surprising.  As I’ve said before, achieving marketable therapies is business, not personal.  We can take some positives out of the fact that Geron made an enormous investment to demonstrate that hESC’s could be used safely in humans, a step that has hopefully paved the way for future therapies to pass through the regulatory process more quickly.

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