Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Kelly Mantoan was nursing her newborn son, Teddy, in the NICU in a Philadelphia hospital when her doctor came in and silently laid a hand on her shoulder. Immediately, Kelly knew what the gesture meant and started to sob: Teddy, like his one-year-old brother, Fulton, had just tested positive for a neuromuscular condition called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).
The boys were 8 and 10 when Kelly heard about an experimental new treatment, still being tested in clinical trials, called Spinraza.
"We knew that [SMA] was a genetic disorder, and we knew that we had a 1 in 4 chance of Teddy having SMA," Mantoan recalls. But the idea of having two children with the same severe disability seemed too unfair for Kelly and her husband, Tony, to imagine. "We had lots of well-meaning friends tell us, well, God won't do this to you twice," she says. Except that He, or a cruel trick of nature, had.
In part, the boys' diagnoses were so devastating because there was little that could be done at the time, back in 2009 and 2010, when the boys were diagnosed. Affecting an estimated 1 in 11,000 babies, SMA is a degenerative disease in which the body is deficient in survival motor neuron (SMN) protein, thanks to a genetic mutation or absence of the body's SNM1 gene. So muscles that control voluntary movement – such as walking, breathing, and swallowing – weaken and eventually cease to function altogether.
Babies diagnosed with SMA Type 1 rarely live past toddlerhood, while people diagnosed with SMA Types 2, 3, and 4 can live into adulthood, usually with assistance like ventilators and feeding tubes. Shortly after birth, both Teddy Mantoan and his brother, Fulton, were diagnosed with SMA Type 2.
The boys were 8 and 10 when Kelly heard about an experimental new treatment, still being tested in clinical trials, called Spinraza. Up until then, physical therapy was the only sanctioned treatment for SMA, and Kelly enrolled both her boys in weekly sessions to preserve some of their muscle strength as the disease marched forward. But Spinraza – a grueling regimen of lumbar punctures and injections designed to stimulate a backup survival motor neuron gene to produce more SMN protein – offered new hope.
In clinical trials, after just a few doses of Spinraza, babies with SMA Type 1 began meeting normal developmental milestones – holding up their heads, rolling over, and sitting up. In other trials, Spinraza treatment delayed the need for permanent ventilation, while patients on the placebo arm continued to lose function, and several died. Spinraza was such a success, and so well tolerated among patients, that clinical trials ended early and the drug was fast-tracked for FDA approval in 2016. In January 2017, when Kelly got the call that Fulton and Teddy had been approved by the hospital to start Spinraza infusions, Kelly dropped to her knees in the middle of the kitchen and screamed.
Spinraza, manufactured by Biogen, has been hailed as revolutionary, but it's also not without drawbacks: Priced per injection, just one dose of Spinraza costs $125,000, making it one of the most expensive drugs on the global market. What's worse, treatment requires a "loading dose" of four injections over a four-week period, and then periodic injections every four months, indefinitely. For the first year of treatment, Spinraza treatment costs $750,000 – and then $375,000 for every year thereafter.
Last week, a competitive treatment for SMA Type 1 manufactured by Novartis burst onto the market. The new treatment, called Zolgensma, is a one-time gene therapy intended to be given to infants and is currently priced at $2.125 million, or $425,000 annually for five years, making it the most expensive drug in the world. Like Spinraza, Zolgensma is currently raising challenging questions about how insurers and government payers like Medicaid will be able to afford these treatments without bankrupting an already-strained health care system.
To Biogen's credit, the company provides financial aid for Spinraza patients with private insurance who pay co-pays for treatment, as well as for those who have been denied by Medicaid and Medicare. But getting insurance companies to agree to pay for Spinraza can often be an ordeal in itself. Although Fulton and Teddy Mantoan were approved for treatment over two years ago, a lengthy insurance battle delayed treatment for another eight months – time that, for some SMA patients, can mean a significant loss of muscular function.
Kelly didn't notice anything in either boy – positive or negative – for the first few months of Spinraza injections. But one day in November 2017, as Teddy was lowered off his school bus in his wheelchair, he turned to say goodbye to his friends and "dab," – a dance move where one's arms are extended briefly across the chest and in the air. Normally, Teddy would dab by throwing his arms up in the air with momentum, striking a pose quickly before they fell down limp at his sides. But that day, Teddy held his arms rigid in the air. His classmates, along with Kelly, were stunned. "Teddy, look at your arms!" Kelly remembers shrieking. "You're holding them up – you're dabbing!"
Teddy and Fulton Mantoan, who both suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, have seen life-changing results from Spinraza.
(Courtesy of Kelly Mantoan)
Not long after Teddy's dab, the Mantoans started seeing changes in Fulton as well. "With Fulton, we realized suddenly that he was no longer choking on his food during meals," Kelly said. "Almost every meal we'd have to stop and have him take a sip of water and make him slow down and take small bites so he wouldn't choke. But then we realized we hadn't had to do that in a long time. The nurses at school were like, 'it's not an issue anymore.'"
For the Mantoans, this was an enormous relief: Less choking meant less chance of aspiration pneumonia, a leading cause of death for people with SMA Types 1 and 2.
While Spinraza has been life-changing for the Mantoans, it remains painfully out of reach for many others. Thanks to Spinraza's enormous price tag, the threshold for who gets to use it is incredibly high: Adult and pediatric patients, particularly those with state-sponsored insurance, have reported multiple insurance denials, lengthy appeals processes, and endless bureaucracy from insurance and hospitals alike that stand in the way of treatment.
Kate Saldana, a 21-year-old woman with Type 2 SMA, is one of the many adult patients who have been lobbying for the drug. Saldana, who uses a ventilator 20 hours each day, says that Medicaid denied her Spinraza treatments because they mistakenly believed that she used a ventilator full-time. Saldana is currently in the process of appealing their decision, but knows she is fighting an uphill battle.
Kate Saldana, who suffers from Type 2 SMA, has been fighting unsuccessfully for Medicaid to cover Spinraza.
(Courtesy of Saldana)
"Originally, the treatments were studied and created for infants and children," Saldana said in an e-mail. "There is a plethora of data to support the effectiveness of Spinraza in those groups, but in adults it has not been studied as much. That makes it more difficult for insurance to approve it, because they are not sure if it will be as beneficial."
Saldana has been pursuing treatment unsuccessfully since last August – but others, like Kimberly Hill, a 32-year-old with SMA Type 2, have been waiting even longer. Hill, who lives in Oklahoma, has been fighting for treatment since Spinraza went on the U.S. market in December 2016. Because her mobility is limited to the use of her left thumb, Hill is eager to try anything that will enable her to keep working and finish a Master's degree in Fire and Emergency Management.
"Obviously, my family and I were elated with the approval of Spinraza," Hill said in an e-mail. "We thought I would finally have the chance to get a little stronger and healthier." But with Medicare and Medicaid, coverage and eligibility varies wildly by state. Earlier this year, Medicaid approved Spinraza for adult patients only if a clawback clause was attached to the approval, meaning that under certain conditions the Medicaid funds would need to be paid back. Because of the clawback clause, hospitals have been reluctant to take on Spinraza treatments, effectively barring adult Medicaid patients from accessing the drug altogether.
Hill's hospital is currently in negotiations with Medicaid to move forward with Spinraza treatment, but in the meantime, Hill is in limbo. "We keep being told there is nothing we can do, and we are devastated," Hill said.
"I felt extremely sad and honestly a bit forgotten, like adults [with SMA] don't matter."
Between Spinraza and its new competitor, Zolgensma, some are speculating that insurers will start to favor Zolgensma coverage instead, since the treatment is shorter and ultimately cheaper than Spinraza in the long term. But for some adults with SMA who can't access Spinraza and who don't qualify for Zolgensma treatment, the issue of what insurers will cover is moot.
"I was so excited when I heard that Zolgensma was approved by the FDA," said Annie Wilson, an adult SMA patient from Alameda, Calif. who has been fighting for Spinraza since 2017. "When I became aware that it was only being offered to children, I felt extremely sad and honestly a bit forgotten, like adults [with SMA] don't matter."
According to information from a Biogen representative, more than 7500 people worldwide have been treated with Spinraza to date, one third of whom are adults.
While Spinraza has been revolutionary for thousands of patients, it's unclear how many more lives state agencies and insurance companies will allow it to save.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."