Wheelzetta, a reader, asks, “How come you don’t write about the trial in China that came out last week, where people with spinal cord injury were walking?”
Well, Wheelz, I think I know what you’re referring to. I saw a piece the other day from the Times of India
by way of Agence France-Presse, with this headline: “Doctor claims breakthrough in race for spinal cord injury ‘cure.' The doctor is Wise Young, who is quoted as saying, “It’s the first time in human history that we can see the regeneration of the spinal cord.” Really? Regeneration? Wow.
My first impression was that Wise was probably misquoted. But maybe not.
On Friday I got an email from the Spinal Cord Injury Project, the fundraising side of Young’s research set-up at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was titled “IMPORTANT PRESS RELEASE
,” and it boldly stated that “The trial provides hope to millions of people worldwide who have been told by their doctors that they should not expect to walk again after spinal cord injury.” But yeah, as far as I know it got zero traction in the press, and for that we can be grateful that at least a few keepers remain at the gates of the media message machine.
The trial we are talking about, from ChinaSCINet, is, as they say in Texas, big hat, no cattle. I know – 15 out of 20 completely injured folks with SCI for at least a year were reportedly able to walk using rolling walkers and “minimal assistance.” Sounds pretty cool, and indeed it may be so. But at this point – it’s a Phase II trail, and still pretty early in the process of evaluating a therapy – the work is a promise, based on unblinded, expectant anecdote; once it gets peer-reviewed and therefore validated by publication in a medical journal, and perhaps even duplicated by others, then we can take it seriously.
The China trial wasn’t reported by me or the mainstream science press because there was nothing else to go on but a press release. Less than an inch away from the web link to the release is a “donate now” button. Might the two be related?
Wise Young is a cure soldier, for sure. I have known him for more than 25 years; I like him. I want him to succeed and I know he’s been working hard to get these trials going in China. This one (which Young has discussed often at the CareCure
online community, which he hosts) tested transplanted umbilical cord blood into the area of injury in chronic, complete SCI. Some patients got lithium, some got their spinal cords cleaned up and “untethered,” and all got a ton of rehab.
There’s no way to know what worked or didn’t; maybe the transplanted cells alone are miraculous. Maybe the rehab is enough. Nobody knows, and that’s why clinical trials happen, to free oneself of bias and test a hypothesis, which in turn is supposed to be based on reasonable pre-clinical (animal) data. Others have challenged Young’s hypothesis, and his preclinical models, and his trial design, but that’s not unusual in the science world. But for him to speculate mid-trial, or to suggest that this is the cure people have been clamoring for, that isn’t fair to you, Wheelz, and it doesn’t cut it with either the science community, or the press.