10 September 2010

The G20, Martin Luther King, and Invivo Therapeutics

"When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance. We've learned to fly the air as birds, we've learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters."

I think Martin Luther King may have summed up my entire post in five lines of eloquence, as compared to the 300 lines I got to write to make the same point. 

First about the scientific and technological abundance part.
  • Geron Corporation will start human trials for spinal cord injury using embryonic stem cells.
  • TCA Cellular got the green light for human trials in spinal cord injury using adult stem cells and has already started.
  • Human trials for ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) using neural stem cells are starting.
  • The blind are having their vision restored using stem cells in Italy and Australia.
  • Stem cells and Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Stem cells and heart disease.
  • Stem cells and...
These therapies and trials can be found by simply searching for the disease name + stem cells.

The list of diseases that may be treatable using stem cells grows and grows every day. The therapy that I would like to discuss today is for spinal cord injury from a company called Invivo Therapeutics (which believes that stem cells may not be necessary for curing spinal cord injury but they have done the stem cell tests, too) founded by medical entrepreneur Frank Reynolds

Before I go any further I am going to state unequivocally that I would love this therapy to succeed and if Mr. Reynolds called me up and asked me to try it out in one of their human trials that are scheduled for next year, I would jump (not literally because I can't) at the chance. Please understand that any criticisms that I am about to make are not directed towards Mr. Reynolds or his company.

I'm not going to go into the science behind this because you can read about it yourself but I would like to state two truly remarkable things about this therapy. One, it is the first therapy for spinal cord injury to be tried on a monkey, and it works. Two, they will bring this product to market for only $12 billion dollars. 

NO! NO! NO! Not $12 billion, $12 MILLION, which according to Mr. Reynolds is, "very much unheard of in the medical community today." According to Invivo Therapeutics, this $12 million dollar investment could pay off $1 billion dollars if the human trials are successful.

Now the haven't learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters part.

Why has Mr. Reynolds and his team, of what he calls mostly grad students, been able to pull of something of this magnitude for pennies, when no government has? 

Is it because governments are not innovative? 
Well, look at the atomic bomb.

Is it because the cure is to expensive to develop? 
Actually, Mr. Reynolds has proven that it can be done quite cheaply. Furthermore governments are already funding a lot of work, but in many cases are only funding the future profits of private companies. Also, care for people with spinal cord injuries costs much, much more than a cure for spinal cord injury (see more information at the bottom of this post).

This is simply, as Martin Luther King said, because we "haven't learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters." Governments are not meeting their obligation to their own citizens to make the people's needs top priority. Governments, because of ideology not fact, will let their own citizens suffer rather than give into the logic that private enterprise cannot solve all problems. 

This failure costs us money today and will cost of more money in the future. It will make the cure more expensive in the end, and more importantly it will increase the amount of time it will take to get the cure to the beside because as private companies compete for the golden ring, they will not share data that could hasten the cure.

For the sick, this failure costs much more than money. 

Spinal cord injury and all the other diseases that will be cured in the future will not be cured by one therapy. It will be a combination of different therapies, and that means cooperation, as opposed to competition, will hasten the cure. Private companies will not do this. Private companies have a duty to their investors to make profits, and rightfully so. This also means that one small failure could also lead to their investors pulling away, leaving the research to rot on the tree. The leadership to cure disease through cooperation, or as Dr. King calls it, "walking the earth as brothers and sisters," can only come through government, which in the end, is us.

If world leaders are not willing to walk hand in hand with their citizens, then it is up to us to use our collective power to drag them kicking and screaming behind us.

A few posts back I said that I would offer an efficient, alternative way to finance, administer, and plan stem cell research. It's something that you and I, as brothers and sisters, could work on together.
  1. The G20 countries set up a fund based on their GDP totaling $29 billion, the same amount as the atomic bomb cost, and also set up a G20 Secretariat for medical research.
  2. This fund be used to pay for all the research that is going on at universities and at private companies which agree to cooperate fully in sharing data and agree that all patents are held collectively.
  3. That scientists are given regular access to each other to do the sharing that will bring us the cure.
Well, the G20 will meet again next year. So I/we have a lot of work to do in the meantime.

On a different note, I recommend watching the movie Lorenzo's Oil starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. I got turned on to this film my reading about Frank Reynolds who watched it when he himself was paralyzed and inspired him to look for the cure.

It's a true story about a mother and father of a boy with ALD. At that time, there was no way to stop the degeneration caused by the ALD so the mother and father started looking for a cure themselves, and found it. They were too late for their own boy as the myelin sheath that insulates nerves of the central nervous system allowing the nerves to conduct impulses was already damaged. So the parents started to look for a way to remyelinate the nerves.

For me the most telling part of this movie is right at the end (3:12) when the boy's father is discussing with a researcher. The researcher is telling the father about the slowness of science and that scientists don't like to collaborate. Nick Nolte, the father, answers:

"That's not necessarily so, because remember the Manhattan Project? Twenty eights months. It took 
them twenty eight months. Now, if scientists can come together to build the atomic bomb,...surely theycome together to remyelinate some puppy dogs?" (The original tests were to be done on dogs.)

From The University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center - March 2002 (from SCI-INFO-PAGES)
Costs of Spinal Cord Injury in the USA

  • Length of initial hospitalization following injury in acute care units: 15 days
  • Average stay in rehabilitation unit: 44 days
  • Initial hospitalization costs following injury: $140,000
  • Average first year expenses for a SCI injury (all groups): $198,000
  • First year expenses for paraplegics: $152,000
  • First year expenses for quadriplegics: $417,000
  • Average lifetime costs for paraplegics, age of injury 25: $428,000
  • Average lifetime costs for quadriplegics, age of injury 25: $1.35 million
  • Percentage of SCI individuals unemployed eight years after injury 63%. (Note: unemployment rate when this article was written was 4.7%)


  1. Well written! And I agree with every word of this post!

  2. Thought you might be interested in this article. Talks about a group in the UK.