Disease-a-Week Challenge #1: How the California Stem Cell Program is Battling Lou Gehrig's Disease

05/28/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Last year, chronic disease cost America as much as all federal income tax and the national debt combined.

Let me prove that.

First, the money we spend on chronic (long-lasting or incurable)disease is three-quarters of every health care dollar.

Total medical care in 2014 was approximately $3.1trillion. (The exact figure is not recorded yet, but in 2013 it was $2.9 trillion)

Three fourths of $3.1 trillion is $2.3 trillion. Hold that number in your mind.

Now. All federal income taxes ($1.7 trillion last year)--

plus 2014's installment of the nationaldebt ($506 billion)--
=$2.2 trillion

Chronic illness--$2.3 trillion. National debt plus federal income tax-- $2.2 trillion.

Another way to look at it is that chronic disease ($2.3 trillion) cost America four times the amount of the national debt ($506 billion) for 2014.

And the human suffering? Incalculable.

The United States has nearly one person in two with a chronic disease: that's 45%, or 133,000,000 people with a long-lasting or incurable disease.

These are not just empty figures on a page, to be skipped over and ignored. These are our loved ones: friends and family members: people like my son Roman Reed, paralyzed since 1994; or my sister Patty, dying of leukemia at 23 years; or my mother, Christine, killed by cancer, age 52.
But California is fighting back.

In 2004, a citizen's initiative was led by Bob Klein, himself the father of a diabetic son, Jordan Klein. Proposition 71 led to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) our $3 billion stem cell research program.

The work they are doing is amazing, and everyone should know about it.

For the next 21 weeks, every Wednesday, I will blog about one disease or condition the California stem cell program is challenging--all considered "incurable". Why Wednesday? First, the second Wednesday in October, (October 14th), is Stem Cell AwarenessDay.

And-- October 14th is the day my stem cell book* comes out!

Consider following the 21-week series, here or at my personalweblog.

Note: I have no official connection with the California stem cell program. Also, I am neither scientist nor doctor. Mistakes and misinterpretations are my own.

For more information on ALS or another disease, go to, type its name into the search box, and then click on the condition's "Fact Sheet".

Now--here we go!

Disease-a-week Challenge #1: ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, motor neuron disease, is called Lou Gehrig's disease in America. Lou Gehrig, the great New York Yankee baseball player, was called the "Iron Horse" because he always stayed in top condition, never failing to start a game. Inexplicably, he began losing control of the ball. All the things that meant so much to him, throwing, catching and hitting the elusive leathern spheroid-- his near-miraculous coordination was gradually destroyed. He trained harder, saw doctors; but nothing helped.

Finally, during a game, a fellow player actually ran over and handed Lou Gehrig the ball--and he dropped it. The next day, he took himself out of the lineup.

The world will never forget the courage of his retirement speech "I stand before you the luckiest man on the face of the earth", immortalized by Gary Cooper in the film PRIDE OF THE YANKEES. But few know how he spent his last months, serving as a probation officer, working with ex-cons, trying to give them the second chance he would not have himself. When Lou Gehrig died, America knew about motor neuron disease.

ALS does its damage by killing the nerve cells which control motion. Gradually, over a period of several years, the body loses its ability to move: even to swallow, and, finally, to breathe.

What happens to the family financially, when ALS strikes?

In one year, a patient can expect costs of approximately: "$31,121 medical costs, $17,889 in non-medical costs, and $14,682 in lost income."

The expenses only stop when the patient is gone.

So what is California trying to do about Lou Gehrig's Disease?

First, our scientists are seeking to more clearly "understand the origin of thedisease"disease and what causes (the death of) motor neurons..."

Second, they must be able to describe the weapon that is used against the patient, in this case cells literally oozing toxin:

"Cells (astrocytes) secrete a chemical that damages the neurons" (nerve cells which control motion).
Ultimately, we must find a path to cure.

One promising possibility:

"(Our) scientists learned how to take...cells and turn them into motor neurons (for possible replacement.)."

If new and healthy nerve cells are introduced into the body, they may replace the bad cells, and reverse the downward spiral to paralysis and death.

Steps taken towards cure in ALS research may help other nerve diseases as well.

But none of this happens without money.

As of the CIRM fact sheet of today, the California stem cell program has provided $55 million in researchfunding, toward the cure of ALS and related neurological conditions.

Such funding makes possible the work of top scientists (and their lab teams!) champions like: Larry Goldstein, Bin Chen, Clive Svendsen, Eugene Yeo, Bennett Novitch, Ying Liu, Steven Finkbeiner, Zack Jerome, and more.

They work at world-class research institutions like: the University of California at San Diego, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the J. David Gladstone Institutes, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

This is the way to fight for cure. In years to come, the California stem cell program will be recognized as one of the greatest accomplishments in medical history. It is the pride of a state, the glory of our nation--and a friend to all the world.

Join us next Wednesday, for: Alzheimers, the Thief of Memory.

*Don C. Reed is the author of the forthcoming book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease.