₹16 crore drug is the hope for SMA patients

Nearly 200 in Karnataka are diagnosed with the rare genetic disease

February 12, 2021 01:47 am | Updated 10:34 am IST - Bengaluru

The one-time gene therapy developed by Novartis, Zolgensma, treats a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA.

The one-time gene therapy developed by Novartis, Zolgensma, treats a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA.

A gene therapy costing ₹16 crore is the only shot of life for nearly 200 children with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 1, a rare genetic disease, in Karnataka.

Last month, the therapy — Zolgensma — was offered free to a 14-month-old baby from Bhatkal (Uttara Kannada) who was the lucky winner of a lottery through a compassionate access programme by Novartis, the Swiss drugmaker. This lottery is held once in two weeks for SMA children across the world and doctors at Baptist Hospital, that has a dedicated Paediatric Neuromuscular Service, are hoping more children will benefit.

One-time infusion

“The therapy is a one-time infusion that takes about an hour,” Ann Agnes Mathew, Consultant Paediatric Neurologist and Neuromascular Specialist, at Baptist Hospital told The Hindu. The therapy was approved by U.S. regulators in May 2019 and has since then turned into a miracle drug for this rare disorder that destroys a baby’s muscle control.

“SMA is a disease caused by loss of nerve cells, which carry electrical signals from the brain to the muscles. The protein needed for this signalling is coded by a gene for which everyone has two copies - one from the mother and the other from the father. A child develops this disorder only if both the copies are faulty. Without treatment, this disease is ultimately fatal,” said Dr. Mathew. The disease as it progresses, makes it extremely difficult for the babies to carry out basic activities like sitting up, lifting their head or swallowing milk.

Pointing out that the current treatment options range from medicines, which increase these proteins, to replacing the faulty gene, the doctor said, “Zolgensma is a revolutionary treatment, which works by supplying a healthy copy of the faulty gene, which allows nerve cells to then start producing the needed protein. That halts deterioration of the nerve cells and allows the baby to develop more normally.”

Delay in customs

The drug has a 14-day shelf life and when it was sent from U.S. for the Bhatkal baby, it was stuck with customs for three days in mid-January making doctors jittery. Dr. Mathew said she had to personally meet the Customs officials to get it released. “When we explained the situation to them, they immediately released it. Any further delay would have been risky. The parents have taken a house on rent and are staying near the hospital for follow up. The baby is doing fine now,” she said.

Pointing out that 38 babies had succumbed to the rare disease in Karnataka in over one-and-a-half years, Dr. Mathew said most families have given up hope as they cannot afford the treatment.

Special centre

The Paediatric Neuromuscular Service at Baptist Hospital is a pioneering centre in the country with a multidisciplinary team of a paediatric neurologist, paediatric neuromuscular specialist, paediatric geneticist, paediatric pulmonologist, paediatric intensivist, paediatric cardiologist and paediatric endocrinologist providing comprehensive care under one roof. This service is run in collaboration with Organisation for Rare Diseases India, a NGO.

Crowdfunding effort

A Bengaluru-based couple - Naveen Kumar and Jyothi - have taken to crowdfunding on ImpactGuru.com, a crowdfunding platform, to cover the cost of Zolgensma therapy for their 10-month-old baby Janish who was diagnosed with SMA.

Mr. Kumar, who works as an insurance surveyor and barely earns ₹30,000 a month, cannot afford the expensive treatment.

The couple were counting their baby’s milestones after his birth in February 2020. They caught his first smile and his first laugh but baby Janish never went past his first two milestones. The parents then rushed him to a pediatrician and from there the baby was referred to Baptist Hospital, said Dr. Ann Agnes Mathew, who has been treating the baby for the last five months.

Piyush Jain, co-founder and CEO, ImpactGuru.com, said over ₹22 lakh has been raised so far for baby Janish from over 1,500 donors.

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