Haredi leader Rabbi Refoel Shmulevitz, a victim of the motor neuron disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), may be the first known patient cured of ALS, which he was diagnosed with two years ago. ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrigs’ disease after the iconic baseball player who contracted it in 1939, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that features a gradual breakdown of muscle groups, paralysis, and respiratory problems, and is usually fatal within three to five years of diagnosis. Gehrig himself succumbed to the disease at age 37, but other famous victims, notably British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, have survived, albeit with no ability to move or communicate save with the use of the eyes. According to the American ALS association, the disease effects about 5,600 people a year, and has no known cause.
Doctors have until now been unable to cure or reverse the effects of ALS, and have been confined to slowing down the disease and easing its pain through various drug treatments. But that bleak diagnosis may change, through BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics, an Israeli biomedical company based in Petah Tikva that has been conducting trials on NurOwn, a treatment for ALS utilizing stem cell technology. NurOwn was found to have no side effects in January of this year, and was approved for clinical trials on human beings, as well as meriting orphan drug status by the FDA, which means that the drug is financially incentivized because it is for rare diseases. The hope is that NurOwn will be able to cure patients with even advanced stages of ALS, and return them to healthy living.
Such was the case with Rabbi Refoel Shmulevitz, a son of Haredi scion Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz and a head of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Shmulevitz was diagnosed with the disease in 2010 at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, and as of one month of ago, his disease had progressed to an advanced stage, constraining Shmulevitz to a wheelchair and limiting his ability to speak and breathe. His condition was coupled with another rare disease, Myasthenia Gravis, and the resulting combination barred him from participating in clinical trials of NurOwn at Hadassah Hospital, where he is currently being held. Instead, he was approved for so-called “compassionate treatment”, intended for patients with no hope for recovery from the disease.
“Within a few weeks following injection with NurOwn cells, the patient showed dramatic improvement in a variety of functions including breathing, speech, walking, muscular strength, and overall well-being,” said Professor Dimitrios Karussis, a neurologist at Hadassah and the principal investigator of BrainStorm’s clinical trials, to Israel’s Channel 2 News, adding “While we cannot draw scientific conclusions based on the outcome of an individual patient, these results are extremely encouraging.”
Rabbi Shmulevitz is thankful for regaining his ability to walk, talk, and even climb stairs, calling his recovery a miracle and profusely thanking God. The euphoria is shared by BrainStorm’s executives; Chairman of the Board Professor Avi Israeli said the company was “moved” by the “remarkable results observed” and Chaim Lebovits, BrainStorm’s founder said “Its hard to describe the excitement that took hold of us as a result of the amazing results.”
It is far from clear if Shmulevitz’s results are indicative of the drug’s healing qualities, and the company is looking for more evidence of efficacy. BrainStorm expects to have results of its clinical trials conducted in Hadassah Hospital this month, and plans to conduct more clinical trials in the United States as well, through a joint effort with Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Massachusetts’ Medical School. But if the drug indeed proves to be a viable treatment for ALS, the results would be game changing, and would help people afflicted with ALS across the world. “There is no doubt that a great drama is taking place here” said a Hadassah doctor to Channel 2.