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ALS Treatment (in Cells) – Too Late for Glenn, But Wonderful News

Glenn Nichols and the hospice team.
Glenn Nichols and the hospice team.

I was cutting and pasting a post about Sunday night’s episode of Call the Midwife, which was about cystic fibrosis, when a news release came in that brought me to tears.

Kevin Eggan and co-workers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have discovered that the seizure drug Potiga (retigabine), FDA-approved in 2010, apparently tempers the hyperexcitability of neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells made from patients who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Of course clinical trials are necessary to test the drug on patients, not just their derived cells. And because this blog investigates perspectives beyond the headlines, I’ll leave it to others to explain the exciting science. Instead, this post is a tribute to all researchers who work on neurological diseases, from Glenn Nichols. He died of ALS several years ago.

Glenn was my favorite hospice patient. I was paired with him as a volunteer because he was an English teacher who wanted to write his memoir, before ALS took away his speech.

When I met Glenn, he wasn’t expected to live more than 6 months, but he survived for 14. I like to think that his writing kept him going. During that time, I’d type away as Glenn’s life story poured out. We grew close, and at times I feared he was going to ask me to help him end things. He never did.

800px-Allman_Brothers_Band_-_Gregg_AllmanSo we wrote his memoir. Then we spent three weeks discussing the end of life. He was ready. But then we both noticed that he was still very much alive, still able to talk, still able to eat – even peanut butter! So he asked me a favor – he’d always wanted to write a novel. And so we did. It was the quintessential midlife-male fantasy: Glenn was a member of the Allman Brothers, riding a motorcycle with his wife on the back, her long black hair flying behind her like a flag.

I learned after Glenn passed away that she absolutely hated the book. But at the funeral there was her photo, in her twenties, riding in a convertible with her dark mane behind her like the tail of a comet.

One of Glenn’s wishes was to be published. I knew the editor of our local newspaper, and so I edited some of Glenn’s memoir, and one Sunday, there it was on the front page. So I am typing it in here, so Glenn can live on. I know that the repurposed seizure drug is a very early-stage discovery, but after so many disappointments in treating this terrible disease, now there is hope.

Schenectady Gazette, September 16, 2007

Lou Gehrig’s Disease Saps The Body, But Person Inside Is Still There
By Glenn Nichols

On October 25, 2005, my life as I knew it came to an end when the doctor said the words “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”

I didn’t hear much after the prognosis of three to five years from diagnosis, as I tried desperately to remember when I started having problems. How much time did I have?

The news wasn’t a complete shock. I’d searched the Web, gone from doctor to doctor, had test after test. ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, kept coming up.

256px-Motor_Neuron_Before_Post-Polio_SyndromeALS is a fatigue-driven terminal illness. The neurons in the voluntary muscles continually fire, until the muscle is destroyed. For some people it starts in the throat, with excess saliva and then trouble swallowing. I have the other type. It began with tingling in my right hand and forearm. That led to carpal tunnel surgery, for a diagnosis of ALS is one of exclusion and usually a last resort.

My hands continued to worsen, the fingers curling as my muscles shrank. I had fasciculations – muscles twitch, and you can actually see it and feel it, like snakes slithering, painlessly, beneath the skin.

My strength sapped away. I couldn’t button shirts or zip zippers. Weakness became a major problem, because as a writing teacher, I could no longer manipulate the markers on the whiteboard. I had to have a student do it.

Then strange things started to happen in my lower parts. I ran as if I had clown shoes on, and my feet flapped. My back was growing stiff, and my spine curving. Visiting my primary care doctor and then a neurologist led to another misdiagnosis, a pinched nerve, but then a neurosurgeon saw what was wrong simply by watching me walk unclothed.

From the first tingling in my hands until accurate diagnosis was four years, by which time I’d lost all faith and trust in the medical community. Then I had the good fortune to be referred to the regional ALS center at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, and Dr. Jonathan Cooper. Soon a nurse from the center called to set up a meeting at our home. She brought a wealth of information, patiently answered all of our questions, and when she left that day, my wife and I felt much better, knowing a team of experts would help us through what was ahead.

Three months later, I was walking with a cane; by early spring, crutches; by May, a manual wheelchair. My decline has continued in fits and starts, with periods of new difficulties interspersed with plateaus as I adjust to new limitations. Community Hospice of Schenectady came on board to help last January, providing daily visits from a nurse, aide, chaplain, social worker or volunteer.

Currently I am immobile and in bed, with a BiPAP machine to force air into my lungs. My muscles are dying, curling my hands and feet into useless claws. When I’m lifted from my bed, my back is so bowed I look down at the floor. But I can still eat and talk and even blog.

And I’m still me.

Only a small percentage of ALS cases are inherited. The first gene discovered was that for superoxide dismutase (SOD1).
Only a small percentage of ALS cases are inherited. The first gene discovered was that for superoxide dismutase (SOD1).

A person receiving a terminal diagnosis is not the only one affected. It took me awhile to understand this. I knew how it would affect close family members. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reactions of others.

Bad news travels quickly, and out of the woodwork, people began to appear. Most didn’t know what to say. People I hadn’t seen in a long time would show up, but not bring up my health until I did. I’d have to tell them it was OK to talk about it, that it was a reality that I was living with. Others went in the other direction. Thinking they were doing the right thing, they’d festoon me with books about famous folk with ALS, such as “Tuesdays With Morrie” or books on death and dying.

That gets old real quick. So I told my visitors that even though I have to live knowing what’s coming, I’m still the same person. We can talk about other things: about music, baseball, horse racing, cars, idiotic TV shows.

Now that I’m bedridden and hooked up 24/7 to my BiPAP machine, I do look different. But somehow visitors equate this with being different. I remember the moment when a friend suddenly realized I was no longer able to walk. I could see it in his body language and in the look on his face. I told him that a lot had changed, but fortunately it doesn’t affect your brain or your personality. So just treat me like me.

Visiting a friend with ALS may be tough, but at least I’m not in pain. It’s different if someone has stage IV cancer, or dementia and they don’t recognize you. But visit. Talk about anything and everything. And remember that no matter what the person looks like on the outside, he or she is still your dear friend on the inside.

Be there.

  1. Thanks. I’m surprised it didn’t make the nightly news. I gave up an interview with the researcher and told him to spend his time with the news folks. Maybe the New York Times will cover it Tuesday. I think perhaps a lot of people do not really understand the importance of iPS cells from a patient. Some articles get so bogged down in leftover arguments about embryos that they don’t see the forest for the trees. I hope this story gets the coverage it deserves.

  2. C’mon, time to wake up and smell the coffee.

    People have been solving als for years, and the only way to really do it is change diet, psychology and lifestyle.

    Here some are listed with accounts of how they solved als.

    While maybe that drug will be of some use somehow, don’t let that distract you from the overall reality of the situation.

    Stem cells? Eh, just learn to heal.

  3. I wish “curing” motor neuron degeneration were that simple, but for many people, it isn’t. Research using induced pluripotent stem cells made from patients is an extremely valuable approach to understanding the mechanism behind pathogenesis. Please do not imply that people who are losing their battle with ALS lack knowledge, or refused to “learn to heal.” It is far more complex than that. I know you are trying to help but those kind of comments criticize patients for their situation, as if they chose it or refused to get real help.

    Motor neurons do not normally regenerate. How can you learn to make that happen with diet and lifestyle?

  4. While I am no expert on motor neuron regrowth specifically, I can say that I have seen people slowly or quickly get stronger and healthier after being diagnosed with als and then healing for a while. Kim Cherry, Steven Shackel, Eric Edney and Craig Oster are all examples of people who have done so. Recently I have heard Dawn McCrea’s speech getting stronger and clearer over time.

    Much of the knowledge these people have used to do this has been available for decades, some for centuries or millenia. For example back in the 1980’s Evelyn McDonald did great work analyzing her healing after being diagnosed with als.

    She subsequently sought to raise awareness of what she had done only to be snubbed and ignored by the medical community and als related organizations.

    Craig Oster and Kim Cherry talk of similar experiences. Both, that’s right both, first Craig and then years later Kim, were banned from an online als forum for merely discussing success in healing.

    So organizations and labs are engaged in basic research into microbiological processes involved in neurodegeneration while at the same time people who are already succeeding in solving als, and even relevant studies, are being almost completely ignored.

    See this ALS Forums post, for instance, to get a sense of the situation.

    So yes, the truth is that people diagnosed with als along with people at als related organizations are, by, among other things, ignoring key information and demonizing people challenging medical orthodoxy, in a way responsible for the perpetuation of the problem.

    Maybe through the use of pluripotent stem cells people will generate benefits leading to better understanding and methods that can be used to facilitate healing.

    At the same time, there is much reality to what I am saying about waking up and smelling the coffee.

  5. Thanks so much Marty. When I have time (overwhelmed with book deadlines) I really want to go over the material you posted. It is great to know there are at least some people who improve. Even a few makes it so much different than the situation with Huntington disease. My patient lived so much longer than was predicted, and retained several functions that the doctors were certain would fail him, but never did. I agree, we all should share as much information as possible.

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