Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Exactly 67 years ago, in 1955, a group of scientists and reporters gathered at the University of Michigan and waited with bated breath for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the school’s Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, to approach the podium. The group had gathered to hear the news that seemingly everyone in the country had been anticipating for the past two years – whether the vaccine for poliomyelitis, developed by Francis’s former student Jonas Salk, was effective in preventing the disease.
Polio, at that point, had become a household name. As the highly contagious virus swept through the United States, cities closed their schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, and even churches to stop the spread. For most, polio presented as a mild illness, and was usually completely asymptomatic – but for an unlucky few, the virus took hold of the central nervous system and caused permanent paralysis of muscles in the legs, arms, and even people’s diaphragms, rendering the person unable to walk and breathe. It wasn’t uncommon to hear reports of people – mostly children – who fell sick with a flu-like virus and then, just days later, were relegated to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.
For two years, researchers had been testing a vaccine that would hopefully be able to stop the spread of the virus and prevent the 45,000 infections each year that were keeping the nation in a chokehold. At the podium, Francis greeted the crowd and then proceeded to change the course of human history: The vaccine, he reported, was “safe, effective, and potent.” Widespread vaccination could begin in just a few weeks. The nightmare was over.
The road to success
Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and virologist who developed the vaccine with his own research team, would rightfully go down in history as the man who eradicated polio. (Today, wild poliovirus circulates in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan – with only 140 cases reported in 2020.) But many people today forget that the widespread vaccination campaign that effectively ended wild polio across the globe would have never been possible without the human clinical trials that preceded it.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible.
The road to human clinical trials – and the resulting vaccine – was a long one. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in order to raise funding for research and development of a polio vaccine. (Today, we know this organization as the March of Dimes.) A polio survivor himself, Roosevelt elevated awareness and prevention into the national spotlight, even more so than it had been previously. Raising funds for a safe and effective polio vaccine became a cornerstone of his presidency – and the funds raked in by his foundation went primarily to Salk to fund his research.
The Trials Begin
Salk’s vaccine, which included an inactivated (killed) polio virus, was promising – but now the researchers needed test subjects to make global vaccination a possibility. Because the aim of the vaccine was to prevent paralytic polio, researchers decided that they had to test the vaccine in the population that was most vulnerable to paralysis – young children. And, because the rate of paralysis was so low even among children, the team required many children to collect enough data. Francis, who led the trial to evaluate Salk’s vaccine, began the process of recruiting more than one million school-aged children between the ages of six and nine in 272 counties that had the highest incidence of the disease. The participants were nicknamed the “Polio Pioneers.”
Double-blind, placebo-based trials were considered the “gold standard” of epidemiological research back in Francis's day - and they remain the best approach we have today. These rigorous scientific studies are designed with two participant groups in mind. One group, called the test group, receives the experimental treatment (such as a vaccine); the other group, called the control, receives an inactive treatment known as a placebo. The researchers then compare the effects of the active treatment against the effects of the placebo, and every researcher is “blinded” as to which participants receive what treatment. That way, the results aren’t tainted by any possible biases.
But the study was controversial in that only some of the individual field trials at the county and state levels had a placebo group. Researchers described this as a “calculated risk,” meaning that while there were risks involved in giving the vaccine to a large number of children, the bigger risk was the potential paralysis or death that could come with being infected by polio. In all, just 200,000 children across the US received a placebo treatment, while an additional 725,000 children acted as observational controls – in other words, researchers monitored them for signs of infection, but did not give them any treatment.
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, skepticism and misinformation around the polio vaccine abounded. But even more pervasive than the skepticism was fear. President Roosevelt, who had made many public and televised appearances in a wheelchair, served as a perpetual reminder of the consequences of polio, as an infection at age 39 had rendered him permanently unable to walk. The consequences of polio had arguably never been more visible, and parents signed up their children in droves to participate in the study and offer them protection.
The Polio Pioneer Legacy
In a little less than a year, roughly half a million children received a dose of Salk’s polio vaccine. While plenty of children were hesitant to get the shot, many former participants still remember the fear surrounding the disease. One former participant, a Polio Pioneer named Debbie LaCrosse, writes of her experience: “There was no discussion, no listing of pros and cons. No amount of concern over possible side effects or other unknowns associated with a new vaccine could compare to the terrifying threat of polio.” For their participation, each kid received a certificate – and sometimes a pin – with the words “Polio Pioneer” emblazoned across the front.
When Francis announced the results of the trial on April 12, 1955, people did more than just breathe a sigh of relief – they openly celebrated, ringing church bells and flooding into the streets to embrace. Salk, who had become the face of the vaccine at that point, was instantly hailed as a national hero – and teachers around the country had their students to write him ‘thank you’ notes for his years of diligent work.
But while Salk went on to win national acclaim – even accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the polio vaccine in 1977 – his success was due in no small part to the children (and their parents) who took a risk in order to advance medical science. And that risk paid off: By the early 1960s, the yearly cases of polio in the United States had gone down to just 910. Where before the vaccine polio had caused around 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, only ten cases of paralysis were recorded in the entire country throughout the 1970s. And in 1979, the virus that once shuttered entire towns was declared officially eradicated in this country. Thanks to the efforts of these brave pioneers, the nation – along with the majority of the world – remains free of polio even today.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. 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 and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby