Spinal Cord Injury—Innovation Measured in Decades, Not Headlines

This blog column is about how short-sighted we have become about medical innovation–where it comes from, when it becomes noteworthy and the reality that headlines drive our perception rather than the long, hard work of discovery. Understandably, the column has also drawn specific inquiries about spinal cord research. The holy grail is still regeneration–regrowing the nerves cells that make the spinal cord the body’s communications conduit. Nonetheless, other interesting work is demonstrating that there may be many pathways to enhanced function, depending in part on the nature of the injury.

We are undergoing a supposed “national crisis” in medical innovation. Congress, FDA, NIH, and industry are involved in multiple initiatives to “cure” this problem. This is particularly visible now because the user fee reauthorization process is underway, but the state of medical innovation is always relevant because of our headline-driven, crisis-oriented culture.

To FDA Matters, this approach profoundly distorts medical accomplishment. You can’t use “where are we today” to judge the success or failure of a medical research process that is inherently broad, iterative, uneven, filled with false starts and driven by cumulative success more often than miraculous breakthroughs. As a case in point, I offer efforts to achieve spinal cord regeneration.

In the mid-to-late 1970’s, I worked for an advocacy group that, among other things, represented the interests of medical research institutions. There was one Congressman on the right committee who was friendly to our cause and with whom we should have had a great relationship.

However, he had two key positions with which we could not agree. He was, simultaneously, the leading Congressional advocate for animal rights and perhaps the only Congressional advocate for spinal cord regeneration. We opposed his position on animal rights because we thought it would hinder medical research.

Surprisingly, we were also against his legislation that would stimulate medical research on spinal cord regeneration. We supported groups promoting the fight against cancer or cardiovascular disease because their proposals allowed NIH significant discretion to determine priorities. In contrast, we were against legislation that would require research on narrow and specific topics, such as spinal cord regeneration.

But our objection (and the vehemence of our objection) went well beyond that. The promise of biomedical research was so great, it was wrong to waste research monies on areas that held no promise. After all, we thought, spinal cord regeneration was the stuff of science fiction. Despite the death and disability from spinal cord injury—an area of genuine unmet need—there was nothing that could be done. People could dream of a future world where medical science could achieve such miracles, but for the foreseeable future it was wasted money and unfairly gave hope to patients to suggest that spinal cord regeneration was possible.

Flash forward 30 plus years and the Congressman looks like a visionary….and the organization I worked for looks like unwitting advocates for the old status quo. A rich base of scientific discoveries has improved supportive care, provided mechanisms for limiting the damage from spinal cord injuries and given reasonable hope that spinal cord regeneration is a possibility for humans in the next 10 to 15 years, maybe sooner!

To gain perspective on this, along with a sense of NIH’s current commitment to this area of research, go to http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sci/detail_sci.htm and also follow some of the links from that site.

I don’t think we were fools in 1998 because we couldn’t see spinal cord regeneration as a promising research area. Despite the organization’s considerable expertise, we underestimated how far medical research could take us—given enough time, interest, commitment and funding. Also, in retrospect, it is remarkable how willing researchers are to contribute to a process of innovation and discovery for which someone else might eventually gain most of the credit.

Forgive me if I don’t see the crisis of “medical innovation” about which it is so fashionable to complain.

As a result of the user fee reauthorization legislation and other FDA and NIH initiatives, I foresee a more conducive regulatory environment for development and approval of medically-innovative products, particularly orphan drugs. The goal is to allow more flexibility, while maintaining rigor. However, these process enhancements are only valuable if there is a wealth of medical innovation, not a dearth of it.

There is more innovative medical research being done today than at any time in history. But the truly great achievements are usually built on many people’s work undertaken over many decades—and until near the end, they hardly ever rate a headline unless someone is intentionally hyping them. Look beneath the surface and you will find that medical innovation is alive and well and just needs our continued encouragement—via regulatory and funding support.

Steven Grossman
http://www.fdamatters.com/

A Link for concerning the FDA user fee reauthorization:

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