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.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.