Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In July 1956, a new drug hit the European market for the first time. The drug was called thalidomide – a sedative that was considered so safe it was available without a prescription.
Sedatives were in high demand in post-war Europe – but barbiturates, the most widely-used sedative at the time, caused overdoses and death when consumers took more than the recommended amount. Thalidomide, on the other hand, didn't appear to cause any side effects at all: Chemie Grünenthal, thalidomide's manufacturer, dosed laboratory rodents with over 600 times the normal dosage during clinical testing and had observed no evidence of toxicity.
The drug therefore was considered universally safe, and Grünenthal supplied thousands of doctors with samples to give to their patients. Doctors were encouraged to recommend thalidomide to their pregnant patients specifically because it was so safe, in order to relieve the nausea and insomnia associated with the first trimester of pregnancy.
By 1960, Thalidomide was being sold in countries throughout the world, and the United States was expected to soon follow suit. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a pharmacologist and physician, was hired by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September of that year to review and approve drugs for the administration. Immediately, Kelsey was tasked with approving thalidomide for commercial use in the United States under the name Kevadon. Kelsey's approval was supposed to be a formality, since the drug was so widely used in other countries.
But Kelsey did something that few people expected – she paused. Rather than approving the drug offhand as she was expected to do, Kelsey asked the manufacturer – William S. Merrell Co., who was manufacturing thalidomide under license from Chemie Grünenthal – to supply her with more safety data, noting that Merrell's application for approval relied mostly on anecdotal testimony. Kelsey – along with her husband who worked as a pharmacologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — was highly suspicious of a drug that had no lethal dose and no side effects. "It was just too positive," Kelsey said later. "This couldn't be the perfect drug with no risk."
At the same time, rumors were starting to swirl across Europe that thalidomide was not as safe as everyone had initially thought: Physicians were starting to notice an "unusual increase" in the birth of severely deformed babies, and they were beginning to suspect thalidomide as the cause. The babies, whose mothers had all taken thalidomide during pregnancy, were born with conditions like deafness, blindness, congenital heart problems, and even phocomelia, a malformation of the arms and legs. Doctors and midwives were also starting to notice a sharp rise in miscarriages and stillbirths among their patients as well.
Kelsey's skepticism was rewarded in November 1961 when thalidomide was yanked abruptly off the market, following a growing outcry that it was responsible for hundreds of stillbirths and deformities.
Kelsey had heard none of these rumors, but she did know from her post-doctoral research that adults could metabolize drugs differently than fetuses – in other words, a drug that was perfectly safe for adults could be detrimental to a patient's unborn child. Noting that thalidomide could cross the placental barrier, she asked for safety data, such as clinical trials, that showed specifically the drug was non-toxic for fetuses. Merrell supplied Kelsey with anecdotal data – in other words, accounts from patients who attested to the fact that they took thalidomide with no adverse effects – but she rejected it, needing stronger data: clinical studies with pregnant women included.
The drug company was annoyed at what they considered Kelsey's needless bureaucracy. After all, Germans were consuming around 1 million doses of thalidomide every day in 1960, with lots of anecdotal evidence that it was safe, even among pregnant women. As the holidays approached – the most lucrative time of year for sedative sales – Merrell executives started hounding Kelsey to approve thalidomide, even phoning her superior and paying her visits at work. But Kelsey was unmovable. Kelsey's skepticism was solidified in December 1960, when she read a letter published in the British Medical Journal from a physician. In the letter, the author warned that his long-term thalidomide patients were starting to report pain in their arms and legs.
"The burden of proof that the drug is safe … lies with the applicant," Kelsey wrote in a letter to Merrell executive Joseph F. Murray in May of 1961. Despite increasing pressure, Kelsey held fast to her insistence that more safety data – particularly for fetuses – was needed.
Kelsey's skepticism was rewarded in November 1961 when Chemie Grünenthal yanked thalidomide off the market overseas, following a growing outcry that it was responsible for hundreds of stillbirths and deformities. In early 1962, Merrell conceded that the drug's safety was unproven in fetuses and formally withdrew its application at the FDA.
Thanks to Kelsey, the United States was spared the effects of thalidomide – although countries like Europe and Canada were not so lucky. Thalidomide remained in people's homes under different names long after it was pulled from the market, and so women unfortunately continued to take thalidomide during their pregnancies, unaware of its effects. All told, thalidomide is thought to have caused around 10,000 birth defects and anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 miscarriages. Many so-called "thalidomide babies" are now adults living with disabilities.
Niko von Glasow, born in 1960, is a German film director and producer who was born disabled due to the side effects of thalidomide.
Just two years after joining the FDA, Kelsey was presented with the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service and was appointed as the head of the Investigational Drug Branch at the FDA. Not only did Kelsey save the U.S. public from the horrific effects of thalidomide, but she forever changed the way drugs were developed and approved for use in the United States: Drugs now need to not only be proven safe and effective, but adverse drug reactions need to be reported to the FDA and informed consent must be obtained by all participants before they volunteer for clinical trials. Today, the United States is safer because of Frances Kelsey's bravery.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.