Thursday, May 21, 2009

Insmed's Drug Focus of Moving ALS Story in NYT

Very moving story about a mother's fight to get the right to use Iplex in the care of her son suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.

May 17, 2009
Months to Live
Fighting for a Last Chance at Life

VIRGINIA BEACH — As Lou Gehrig’s disease sapped Joshua Thompson of his ability to move and speak last fall, he consistently summoned one question from within the prison of his own body. “Iplex,” he asked, in a whisper that pierced his mother’s heart. “When?”

Iplex had never been tested in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the formal name for the fatal disease that had struck Joshua, 34, in late 2006. Developed for a different condition and banished from the market by a patent dispute, it was not for sale to the public anywhere in the world.

But Kathy Thompson had vowed to get it for her son. On the Internet, she had found enthusiastic reviews from A.L.S. patients who had finagled a prescription for Iplex when it was available, along with speculation by leading researchers as to why it might slow the progressive paralysis that marks the disease. And for months, as she begged and bullied biotechnology companies, members of Congress, Italian doctors and federal drug regulators, she answered Joshua the same way:

“Soon,” she said. “Soon.”

At a time when terminally ill patients have more access to medical research than ever before, and perhaps a deeper conviction in its ability to cure them, many are campaigning for the chance to be treated with drugs whose safety and effectiveness is not yet known.

But even as advances in areas like stem cells and genetics generate greater hope for experimental therapies, there is little consensus on how and when to provide them to dying patients whose lives could be prolonged, or shortened, by trying them.

Insurance companies typically do not pay for drugs that are part of a not-quite-finished scientific process. But even affluent families like the Thompsons find themselves pleading simply for the right to buy a drug, with institutions and individuals that often seem to them to have no logic — and sometimes no heart.

Doctors worry about instilling false hope and doing unnecessary harm. Companies fear damaging a drug’s chance of winning approval from the Food and Drug Administration if a patient suffers a bad reaction. The F.D.A. itself does not want patients to bypass clinical trials, which require that some participants receive a placebo to determine reliably whether a drug works.

Some patient advocates are lobbying for laws and policies that would sanction what has become known as the “compassionate use” of experimental drugs by seriously ill patients who have run out of other options. But for now, each appeal to the guardians of untested drugs is an improvisation, in which success relies on connections, determination, mercy and luck, and the hope of prevailing can sometimes eclipse the hope held out for the drug itself.

The Search for a Treatment

Kathy discovered Iplex deep in the pages of her first Google search for “A.L.S. and treatment” late one night in spring 2007, shortly after Joshua’s diagnosis.

In the daylight, she still had trouble believing that her athletic, magnetic son had the devastating disease with an unknown cause, named for the 1930s New York Yankees star whose career was cut short by it. When Joshua’s racquetball racket flew out of his hand because he could not grip it, his mother’s diagnosis was tennis elbow. When the first neurologist mentioned A.L.S., she scheduled more tests, rooting for Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis or even cancer.

But an A.L.S. specialist at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Jeffrey D. Rothstein, had confirmed it. Like the 5,600 other people given the diagnosis each year in the United States, Dr. Rothstein said, Joshua would almost certainly die of the disease in two to five years.

The doctor prescribed the only drug approved for A.L.S., Rilutek, which typically prolongs life by a few months. Joshua, he said, would be eligible to participate in a clinical trial for another drug, Arimoclomol, that would start as soon as the F.D.A. gave the go-ahead. There was nothing else.

Except, maybe, Iplex.

To read the rest of the story, please visit the New York Times.

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