The last time there was a new drug to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) the shows “ER” and “Seinfeld” were battling it out for the top spot on television.
That 22-year medical drought ended about three weeks ago.
Earlier this month, the drug Radicava became available in the United States to treat ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Radicava was approved in May by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a phase III clinical trial in Japan indicated Radicava could slow the decline in the loss of physical function in ALS patients by 33 percent.
Calaneet Balas, the executive vice president of strategy for the ALS Association, said the approval of Radicava has provided the ALS community with some optimism after two decades of frustration.
There’s also the anticipation that other similar drugs will soon follow.
“There is quite a surge of hope in the community,” Balas told Healthline.
Treatments have already started
Treatments using Radicava are already under way at the The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Dr. Adam Quick, assistant professor of neurology, said the Wexner center jumped at the chance to use the new drug.
“We want to offer our patients the most cutting-edge treatments possible,” Quick told Healthline. “We’re interested in trying everything that might be possible.”
Quick explained that some research has shown that ALS is related to free radical damage to nerve cells.
He said Radicava is a “free radical scavenger” that can scoop up these damaging particles.
Quick pointed out that Radicava only slows the symptoms of ALS. It’s not a cure.
“It won’t necessarily make people feel better,” he said. “It’s like applying the brakes to a car that is crashing.”
For many people with ALS, however, that’s good enough for the time being.
“There has been such a sense of despair,” said Balas. “They haven’t had anything for so long. Now, they’re trying to get their arms around what’s going on.”
Why ALS is difficult to treat
ALS is a disease that kills the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles.
People with the disease eventually lose the ability to use their limbs and other parts of their body.
About 6,000 people a year in the United States are diagnosed with ALS. Most people develop the disease between the ages of 40 and 70.
About half of people with the disease live less than three years after diagnosis. Only about 10 percent live more than 10 years.
One of the people participating in the Wexner treatment is former National League Football player William White.
He’s the second well-known former pro football player this year to announce he has ALS.
Former San Francisco 49er Dwight Clark announced in March that he’d been diagnosed with the disease.
Quick said there may be some connection between playing professional football and ALS.
He added that the disease has also shown up in people who have played soccer, as well as people who have served in the military.
Head injuries, therefore, could be a link. But ALS is such a complex disease, it’s difficult to know.
“It’s a really complicated problem,” Quick said.
Like Alzheimer’s, the fact that ALS is a brain-related disease makes it tough to treat.
“Nervous system tissue doesn’t heal very well,” Quick explained.
He also noted ALS can be different for different people.
Balas added that ALS isn’t just one disease. It can be many different ailments.
Issues such as the blood-brain barrier add to the difficulty in treatment.
What the future holds
Balas said the excitement over Radicava is amplified by the fact that other similar drugs are now in clinical trials.
She said there’s hope that these other drugs will also be effective and could someday even be combined into a drug cocktail.
“There’s excitement,” Balas said, “that these drugs can cross over the goal line.”
She said the money raised the past two years by the Ice Bucket Challenge has provided funds to keep this kind of research going.
Quick noted that progress can be pushed along by the fact that people with ALS are willing to try new treatments.
“The ALS community is a pretty motivated group,” he said.