An Astounding Treatment at an Astounding Price: Who Gets to Benefit?
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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”