Prof. Eddie Bollenbach
Prof. Edward Bollenbach
Why We Aren't Research Orphans
Despite Little Research on Polio
Edward P. Bollenbach

Professor Emeritus in Biology,
Northwestern Connecticut Community College

Eddie Bollenbach Bio & Picture

I have been wondering lately if we will have the time to see breakthroughs in research that will benefit polio survivors. The proximal cause of the damage we now suffer is a loss of contact between muscles that were earlier compensated for by growth of nerve sprouts and end-fiber connections to muscle during early healing after acute polio. Now we have decompensated. Those connections are gone and the muscle targets have atrophied.

Most people with old polio lament that there is a dearth of meaningful research in the direct area of post-polio syndrome to address this loss, and many believe that such targeted research is our only hope for future advances to improve our lives. I have a different take on this and feel that we may be lucky enough to enjoy new functionality in our future, because history has shown that new understanding of specific medical problems, more often than not, arises from research targeted toward other problems, sometimes from areas not even related to the problem at hand, and are often clearly applicable and beneficial even thought this was unforeseen in the original research. That, coupled to the rate of progress we now see in biomedicine, make such developments possible for us.

Louis Pateur
Louis Pasteur 1822-1895
Historically, one of the most famous instances of a new application from research targeted toward something else arose from an experiment by Louis Pasteur. In the last years of the 19th century everyone was trying to find the cause of various diseases in animals and man by isolating bacteria and proving the isolate caused the particular disease. Robert Koch in Germany first isolated the anthrax bacterium and showed that when it was inoculated into healthy cattle they developed anthrax. A big problem in France at the time was chicken cholera, which could spread through chicken farms and decimate populations of chickens in these facilities.

Pasteur decided he would isolate the bacterium that caused chicken cholera by drawing blood and feces and separating bacterial isolates into single cultures of bacteria. Then, he would test each type by inoculating healthy chickens. He meticulously used Robert Koch's earlier published procedures for doing this and in a short time he came up with a candidate bacterium. Alone in his basement Pasteur would inoculate healthy chickens with his pure bacterial type and the chickens would develop cholera. He felt he had nailed down this problem and called other microbiologists and veterinarians to view his accomplishment. But he used older growths of his pure candidate bacterium and some of his chickens did not get sick. He went home and thought about it and decided he needed to use newer fresh bacterial growths to cause the disease.

He called for another demonstration, the story goes, and this time he used all new growths of his candidate bacterium for chicken cholera. But another problem occurred. The problem this time was that some of the chickens he inoculated with his new growths he had earlier inoculated with his old growths. Guess what happened? Some chickens didn't get sick and the one's that didn't were the ones inoculated earlier with old cultures. Pasteur didn't know why this happened at first but he soon found that the chickens that didn't get sick were previously inoculated with the old cultures. He had accidentally vaccinated them against a disease where he had isolated and grown the cause, and this step forward allowed for an explosion of vaccines that protect us today from a host of diseases from influenza to polio. Even today there are over 300 new vaccines pending to protect against things like Alzheimer’s and certain cancers. This was an enormous advance in biomedicine but Pasteur was looking for something else entirely: the cause of chicken cholera.

Some of you may have heard of Moore's law. It states that the number of transistors that can be placed in an integrated circuit has doubled every two years for the last half century. We don't know when this will stop although we are approaching limits. There is what seems to be even faster progress in biotechnology and bio medicine. This is due in part to improvements in computer technology but it is also due to other scientific factors relating to increases in knowledge which feed even faster increases in meaningful research and technological applications.

For example, in the 1970's gene sequencing was expensive and very slow. I remember sitting in a Genetics seminar at Cold Spring Harbor and listening to scientists talk about a project to sequence the human genome. That is, to find every letter in the code of life that makes us human. Many thought this would be an expensive and inordinately long process. But the speed at which sequencing genes increased and the
Michio Kachu
Dr. Michio Kachu
expense of doing it decreased over the years so rapidly that this rate of biomedical progress outpaces Moore's law. According to a lecture in 2004 on the Pace of Biotechnology by Michio Kachu, the rate at which we can now sequence genes doubles and decreases in cost by more than a half every year.

Here are some of Kachu's predictions: Soon we will be able to grow organs like the liver and pancreas. Neurons are now being produced from a person's own cells and we will soon be able to use them in spinal cord damage and brain damage. This will make possible the replacement of neurons where there is a deficit. Producing a pancreas may cure diabetes. These predictions point to the fact that we are at a time when miraculous cures for all kinds of disorders are at our doorstep. We expect advances in cloning, aging, and bio medicine that will astound and surprise us in the next few years. Many will be applicable to the polio problems we now face.

A study of the blue green algae spirulina was shown, when used as a supplement, to delay motor neuron degeneration in ALS. This study was published in "The Open Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Journal" (3:36-41). At Stanford University, a study of zebrafish showed that the number of synapses (neuron connections to muscle) varied between night and day. This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of the journal Neuron. It is clear, within the article, that chemical instigators can be isolated that will spur neuronal growth. A UC Irvine study is the first to demonstrate that human neural stem cells can restore mobility in cases of chronic spinal cord injury, suggesting the prospect of treating a much broader population of patients than traumatically injured spinal patients. (

Microtubules from motor neurons generate the end-fibers we have lost due to polio. In "Current Biology", 09 December 2010, a new biochemical named kinesin, can allow scientists to direct the growth of microtubules through damaged tissue to target muscles. This could result in the directed growth of arrays of microtubules with the proper ends facing muscle surfaces to direct enervation of weakened or newly grown muscles.

In the Journal of Neuroscience, September 29, 2010 an article titled: "New Drug Treatment Triggers Sodium Ions To Regrow Nerves And Muscle; Could Extend Treatment Window For Acute Injuries" has obvious applications to old polio, since both muscle and nerve would need to be regrown. In another article entitled Stem Cells to Treat Muscular Dystropies – Where are we? Neuromuscular Disorders ,Volume 21, Issue 1 , January 2011, Pages 4-12, as current as can be, the authors review criteria for using stem cells to replace damaged muscle in muscular dystrophy, but there is no reason why these techniques and therapeutic recommendations could not be used in old polio.

The examples and discussion above is a prelude to some of the advances I see, that were targeted for different purposes within biomedicine, and in which important applications are likely for people with old polio.

In other words, it is not as depressing as is generally thought regarding biotechnological applications to old polio. If all the money allocated toward the research described above were focused only on polio I wouldn't be surprised if we wouldn't have as much application directly to old polio damage than we have now with research aimed in completely new and different directions. The real question is how fast and safe is it going to be to do trials on humans and how expensive will these treatments be. And above all, will we just miss these rapidly developing biomedically-relevant applications because we were born just a tad too early. At the increasing rate of discovery and application it is not unrealistic to think positively.

PS. Just came in this minute: The Breast cancer drug Taxol helps regeneration of neurons through scar tissue.


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