"He was born with the gift of laughter, and the sense that the world was mad." -- Rafael Sabatini
That opening line (from the novel Scaramouche) would seem to have been written for the comedic genius Richard Pryor. His life was almost unutterably tragic, with every form of cruelty and sadness inflicted on him: raised in a brothel, sexually and physically abused as a child, expelled from school, imprisoned, emotionally terrified of even standing on a stage and performing.
And yet, he made the world laugh. Google some videos of him performing, and I defy you not to get a stomach ache from laughing. Caution: don't listen to him if you have a low threshold for profanity, because he uses curse words like others use punctuation. But funny? Watch him act out the time he stepped into the ring with Muhammed Ali -- I watched it twice preparing for this article, and tears ran down my face both times.
A very different kind of performer was Annette Funicello, one of the stars of Walt Disney's original Mickey Mouse Club, and a series of lighthearted summer movies like Beach Party. Discovered while dancing the role of the Swan Queen in Tschaikowski's Swan Lake at the age of seven, Annette's smile could warm a room.
Like most of America, I watched transfixed when Mickey was on, hugging my knees in front of our neighbor's 7-inch screen, lasting out each moment of the show as long as I could. Annette was special; in my secret heart I really felt she was my friend; that smiling person I had never met.
Both were superstars, reaching the peak of the entertainment world; beloved by millions of fans.
But then for each the symptoms began.
Fatigue, at first, just simple-seeming tiredness, surely nothing a good night's rest could not take care of. But then the limbs would tremble suddenly, spasming, or freezing into paralysis.
Worse was to come.
"Blurred or double vision... thinking problems... loss of balance... weakness... bladder problems..."
While making a movie sequel with Frankie Avalon, Return to Beach Bikini, she appeared to be having trouble with her balance. Rumors spread that the problem might be alcohol, which was not true.
In 1992, Ms. Funicello revealed to the world that she had multiple sclerosis. She wanted to help others with the disease, to encourage research, and if going public about the condition would help, she would do it. She even established a research fund, the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
Her husband Glen Holt was a fine man, who loved her every inch of the way. But the quality of her life went down and down, until a wheelchair was the only practical answer. Annette who had once been a dancer now had to be carried.
The lifespan of a person with MS is not appreciably shortened: both stars lived full lives. Richard Pryor died at 65, Annette passed away at 70.
Although some of the symptoms of MS can be eased by medication, the root cause has not been dealt with -- until now.
MS has to do with the insulation (called myelin) around a human nerve.
Imagine a rat, chewing on a plastic-wrapped electrical cord. What happens when it bites through? A short circuit. The rodent is fried, maybe the house burns down. At very least, the electricity cannot do its job. Flick the switch all you want, but no current can get through; the lights cannot go on.
Similarly, if the insulation around a nerve is destroyed, it short-circuits the body's natural electricity. It distorts the messages between brain, spine, and body, resulting in numbness, pain -- or paralysis.
But what if new myelin could be put in place, re-insulating the nerves?
In Southern California, an effort to do that is underway. With a California stem cell agency grant, Principal Investigators Craig Walsh at the University of California at Irvine, and Jeanne Loring of Scripps Research Institute are tackling the disease with co-PI Claude Bernard at Monash Institute, Australia. (Note: All California funding must be spent in our home state. But when a scientist in another state or nation can bring his or her own funding, as Dr. Bernard is doing, that means more bang to the buck.) Dr. Thomas Lane of the University of Utah was also a huge part of the project, "vital to our efforts," said Dr. Walsh.
Here is a short video of Dr. Loring, giving the "elevator pitch" on how to fight MS.
The mice in the experiment were paralyzed by a virus, in much the way MS works.
Then, the therapy: "...neural precursor cells (NPC) were derived from the human embryonic stem cell line H9. [The paralyzed mice then received] "... transplantation of these NPC cells, which resulted in significant clinical recovery, beginning at 2-3 weeks following transplant."
Paralyzed mice became unparalyzed.
And here is something fascinating. "Despite this striking recovery, these... [cells] were rapidly rejected."
The transplanted cells were rejected -- but the improvements remained. This could be great news indeed, and it might apply to other diseases as well.
Consider: one of the problems of transplanting new organs is rejection -- the body thinks the transplant is an enemy, and fights it. The doctors have to shut down the immune system, putting the patient on special medication for long periods of time, maybe for life. This puts the person at risk: a common cold could have deadly consequences.
But if the cells which brought cure were rejected by the body, but the cure remained -- there might be no need for long-term, anti-immune medications.
Another surprise: as Dr. Walsh points out, "the work has provided 'value added' benefits... challenging our notion that our immune system is simply there to eliminate the pathogens. Instead... our immune cells can also activate regeneration once the pathogenic threat has been immobilized... there is much exciting work to be done." -- (personal communication, Craig Walsh)
How long will it be before people with MS get well? No way to know.
But there is funding for the research. Because California voters said YES to Proposition 71, the Stem Cells for Research and Cures Act, we have a chance to defeat Multiple Sclerosis.
When that day comes -- and may it be soon -- let us toast the memory of Richard Pryor and Annette Funicello, who made the world smile.
Don C. Reed is the author of the forthcoming book, "STEM CELL BATTLES: How Ordinary People Can Fight Back Against the Crushing Burden of Chronic Disease", from World Scientific Publishing, Inc., available by pre-order from Amazon.com.