Spinraza: One Year Later

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One year ago, the folks at Biogen and Ionis dropped a festive holiday morsel that created a firestorm in the neuromuscular community. They had marketed and developed the first-ever treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy… and the FDA had approved its use for all ages and types of the rare, genetic condition. It was like Santa Claus had dropped a major bag of loot down the chimneys of families and individuals with SMA.

If you’ve been following my blog this past year, you’d know that I am one of the lucky ones blessed with these really fucked up genes. Since I lack copies of the SMN1 gene, my body doesn’t produce enough of a specific protein that allows for muscle growth and maintenance– hence, why I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Instead, my body has 3 copies of an alternative gene, called SMN2, which can produce very limited amounts of this essential protein. These backup genes are called ‘backup’ for a reason— they aren’t very good at their job. They work at a slow, meager, and inconsistent rate. Like politicians in Washington D.C.

Yet, these backup genes are why I am currently still alive… and why I didn’t meet St. Peter as a toddler sometime during the Reagan administration. Yet, I am one of the fortunate ones… this shitty, progressive disease has taken many young infants, children, and adults over the years— including my own brother as a baby.

This is why the development of Spinraza (nusinersen) was so revolutionary. Science had finally offered a treatment for what had previously been untreatable. You know those sad, pathetic backup genes I mentioned earlier? Well, Spinraza targets those SMN2 genes and BAM! tricks them into producing more protein. It’s like giving them steroids— only it won’t result in a shrunken penis… or expulsion from the upcoming Winter Olympic Games (yes, I’m talking about you, Russia!).

It’s important to note that Spinraza isn’t a cure. But, when you live your life knowing that with each year that goes by, you’ll get weaker, even the prospect of stability and maintenance of strength is a victory. That could add years to our lives and make everyday just a little easier— you know, just like GPS and the Swiffer Mop.

I began my Spinraza journey soon after the announcement of its FDA approval. Yet, it still took months to navigate all the hurdles to qualify for this treatment. It was a stressful, hopeful time— like the gestation of a baby… or waiting for a poop to come out of your butt after you’ve been constipated. But, in July, the magic day finally came— my very first injection at Stanford Neuroscience.

Very quickly after that first treatment, I began to feel little changes and improvements. Neck and torso muscles tightened… My voice grew louder, more robust… cuss words were easier to shout— I could even trail them together with appropriate adverbs. It was awesome.

My grip and range of motion in my hands improved. And, when I had my follow-up evaluation after my 4 loading doses, the numbers did show that these improvements weren’t just all in my head. (Even though a great many other things are in my head!)

As I’m an adult in my thirties, my results will never be as dramatic as those currently being seen in younger kids and teens. But, as my neuromuscular specialist, the estimable Dr. John W. Day at Stanford, told me, “Our goal with adults like you is to halt progression of the disease. With SMA, that is a victory. Anything above simple stabilization is icing on the cake!

I head back to Stanford in a few weeks for my first maintenance dose of Spinraza. I feel fortunate to be able to receive this treatment. More fortunate than many realize. After all, there are many, many others with SMA (both here in the US, and around the world) that have not been able to do so.

Given the specialized nature of this treatment, the exhaustive research that went into it, and the limited number of folks with SMA, the price for the drug is very high.  The drug companies have to recuperate their expenses and make some kind of profit— otherwise research into rare diseases, like mine, won’t ever happen. And, as we all know, money makes the world go ‘round.

The price tag for the first year’s doses of Spinraza, at $750,000, more closely resembles that of a really large house… or the salary of a mediocre NFL player. (Unlike NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has somehow convinced people to pay him hundreds of millions of dollars for doing nothing more than making Americans spend their time and money on a sport. A game where grown men wear stretchy pants and slam into each other until they get too many concussions and eventually have to retire to eat soup through a straw.)

Anyway, the high price of Spinraza has caused American insurance companies, and international government health organizations, to limit access to the treatment. They are using a variety of parameters to reduce the numbers of eligible recipients— including age, SMA Type, SMN2 gene copy number, and hair color. (Okay, I might have made that last one up.)

But, the more folks they deny, the more money they save.

This has been devastating to families and individuals with Spinal Muscular Atrophy that have been unable to receive Spinraza. To know that this drug exists (the only treatment available), and to be unable to get it, is a mindfuck of epic proportions. And, with each day that goes by, these individuals will get weaker. And some of them will die.

As we mark Spinraza’s anniversary, I am left with a couple final questions…

What is the value of a life? What is the value of a life… like mine?

I don’t know the answers to those questions… and I’m not sure if they should even be answered. But, plenty of bureaucrats seem to be doing that right now.

And many folks with SMA are falling short of the price.

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A Germaphobe’s Guide to the Holidays

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I love everything about the holidays. The music. The food. The carbs. The festive spirit that makes even the dumbest Hallmark movie seem quaint and charming. While I eschew The Hallmark Channel for the other 11 months of the year, for these few weeks, I tolerate the weak plot lines, terrible acting, and the tons of synthetic snow they import from China. I suspend my cynicism and convince myself that this stuff is A-OK— you know, just like Matt Lauer did with his overactive penis.

Anyway, while this season heralds many wonderful things (the extended holiday selection at Starbucks being one of my particular favorites), not everything about this time of year is so great. Yes, I’m talking about all the cold & flu viral cooties that float around faster than Hallmark’s plastic snowflakes. For the average person, this is only a minor annoyance. Perhaps some sniffles here and there, and odd sick day from work. Nothing that Tylenol Cold and a shot of whiskey can’t handle.

But, for someone with spinal muscular atrophy, like me, a minor cold can turn into fucking Armageddon. Like the kind with Bruce Willis and that damn asteroid. Or the kind that wipes out all the dinosaurs on Earth—except for Barney… and Larry King.

So, to call me a germaphobe would be a vast understatement. It would be like calling Einstein merely ‘clever’ or saying that Donald Trump just ‘somewhat likes’ using hairspray.

I am a full-fledged germ freak. If I hear someone cough or sneeze, my ears suddenly morph into the radar of a Navy submarine. I quickly determine the distance between me and the sick person, and if I need to undertake any evasive maneuvers like Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October. I will burrow into the ocean floor if need be. Don’t think I won’t.

If they’ve done something especially stupid, like cough directly into their own hand (instead of the crook of their elbow), I’ll glare at them maliciously while I catalogue every surface that they touch with their virus-ridden hand.

Yes, I really am that bad.

And, yes, it really is stupid to cough or sneeze into your own hand. You should always cover your face with your arm, instead. Less chance of spreading the virus to others.

Anyway, given the respiratory weakness of those with SMA, it is very difficult for us to keep our lungs clear. It is harder for us to cough. Harder for us to blow our nose. So, the drainage that might only be an annoyance to you, can become dangerous to a person like me. It can settle in our chest and potentially cause serious issues.

If I do get sick, I have to be very diligent. I vigorously use my respiratory devices (BiPAP, nebulizer, and CoughAssist) to prevent any complications. Under the best of circumstances, it can take me at least 10 days to 2 weeks to get over a mild cold. More serious illnesses can knock me out for even longer.

As happy and joyful as the holiday season is for me, it can be difficult, too. To the average person, an invite to a holiday cocktail party is immediately accepted. After all, who doesn’t like eggnog and a free selection of crackers and salami?

But, for me, deciding to attend the party would be a gamble. Like playing Russian Roulette or marrying a Kennedy. As much as I love eggnog (which, I do!), I must weigh that against the fact that at least one or two dipshits will probably attend the party even though they are sick and should stay home. Do I want to risk that they won’t sneeze near the salami? Do they know how to properly wash their hands?? What if they actually try to hug me???

Oh, the horror.

This kind of analysis runs through my head with every holiday invite that I receive. Before accepting anything, I quickly consult my calendar to make sure I have nothing important to do for the following two weeks after the event on the off-chance that some fuckhead gets me sick.

You can imagine why it might be easier for me to sit at home this time of year and watch badly-written Hallmark movies, instead. Fake snowstorms are far more palatable than hacking up part of a lung.

Nonetheless, it also isn’t healthy for a person to hide away in their house like the Unabomber. So, I try to venture out from time to time… armed with plenty of Purell, of course.

But, if I turn down an invite to your holiday event, please don’t take it personally. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, or that I hate salami… or eggnog. It just might mean that I’m worried your other guests might be carriers of the bubonic plague or some other horrible disease.

So, yeah… nothing personal.

Happy Holidays to you all!

xoears2

Nutcrackers, Holiday Decorating & All The Lies We Tell

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Around three weeks ago, I was in a store and holiday music was already playing. Even though I snorted in disgust at the prematurity of it all, that didn’t stop me from admiring a collection of miniature Christmas trees roughly the size of Kevin Hart. You’ll be happy to note that I didn’t buy one, but I seriously considered it.

That set my mind into motion— into thinking about the holidays and when I’d put up my own decorations this year. I always tell myself that I’m going to wait until after Thanksgiving, but that never seems to happen. It’s more what I tell other people if they ask me when I put up my Christmas decorations. I always chirp, “Oh, I wait until after Thanksgiving.” But, in reality, I’m secretly hunkering down in my house around November 15th with empty nutcracker boxes strewn all over my dining room table and a rim of peppermint mocha residue around my lips.

It’s one of those secrets that we all keep and then lie to others about. You know, like how many times a day we floss (which is never), how many times a week we empty the lint compartment in the dryer (which is not enough) and if we wash our hands after we blow our nose (which should be all the time, but never is!).

When you are disabled, like me, you have to rely on others to help you put up your Christmas tree. You have to cajole and charm someone into climbing into the recesses of your garage to pull out the 7.5 foot plastic tree crammed in a cardboard box large enough for Kim Jong Un to stuff at least two dead bodies.

I’ve had the same artificial tree for quite a few years now. I don’t like having a real tree. It’s too much commitment. I have a hard enough time remembering to water my two houseplants, I definitely don’t have time to attend to a needy spruce tree. Plus, I don’t want something that will drop needles and crap all over my living room floor. If I wanted that, I’d just borrow a toddler.

Each year, there’s always a big moment of dread right before turning on the Christmas tree lights for the first time. That sinking feeling of wondering if this will be the year that it finally takes a giant poop. I’m sure I don’t need to describe this feeling any further. After all, if you’re a San Francisco 49ers fan, you feel this nearly every week.

Anyway, the last couple of seasons, my tree had begun to show its age. The lights began to dim, and large segments of the tree would randomly go dark, only to perk up again hours later. So, this week, I decided to take the plunge and get a new one. My new tree seems okay so far, but the branches were so smashed from being in the box on the long journey from China that the branches required considerable fluffing to stop them from resembling large marijuana joints. I suppose that’s one benefit to real trees, though— they are already fluffy.

However you may spend this holiday weekend, have a safe and happy one. If you need me, I’ll be here fluffing my tree, consuming large quantities of stuffing, and canoodling with my nutcrackers.

IMG_4507 (2)Happy Thanksgiving!