Given autism affects one in every 150 children, it wasn’t surprising that a large chunk of research dollars would be invested in treating this disorder. But I wondered whether funding to develop treatments for, or improve quality of life in, other conditions reflected how commonly they occurred in children.
I recalled a fascinating fact sheet from the Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation (CPIRF) earlier this year that compared the prevalence of well-known childhood disorders with the amount of research funding they received from U.S. federal government and private sources.
For example, muscular dystrophy affects one in 8,000 children but received $47 million in federal funding this year. Cerebral palsy affects one in 278, but received only $16 million. Autism, at one in 150, received $105 million.
On the private side, muscular dystrophy research drew $310 million, autism $15 million and cerebral palsy $2 million.
I asked Dr. Mindy Aisen, medical director of the CPIRF, to explain the disparity.
“It’s a matter of access to media and funds for lobbying politicians,” Dr. Aisen said. “At the end of the day, research funding does not equate to prevalence. It’s political, and politics is influenced by the media and lobbying. Cerebral palsy is terribly underfunded proportional to its enormous prevalence – which has gone up dramatically in the last decade as a result of the rise in multiple births associated with fertility treatments and our ability to save premature babies.”
Dr. Aisen noted that Jerry Lewis was a media champion for muscular dystrophy research and “autism exploded on the scene with a huge media campaign by Autism Speaks. They’ve done a phenomenal job of making autism a political issue and God bless them.”
Unfortunately, cerebral palsy doesn’t have high-profile celebrities to take its message to the masses and the CPIRF board chooses to put its money into research rather than lobbying.
Dr. Aisen noted that raising research dollars for autism may better capture the public’s imagination because it’s a disability that isn’t apparent at birth. “Children with autism start out looking great and everyone has the expectation that this delicious toddler will be totally functional – and then at age three parents lose that hope. With cerebral palsy, problems are usually apparent from the beginning. There’s still a huge stigma attached to physical impairment. People see a wheelchair and look away – especially if it’s a child in a wheelchair.”
The marketing of high-functioning autism and Asperger’s is also reflected in the recent spate of movie characters with the conditions. “There’s something very appealing about children who are extremely intelligent, mathematical and computer savvy and the sense that if only we could overcome this problem, they could contribute so much.”
Disparity in research funding also exists between disabling childhood and adult conditions. “In large part children’s conditions are far less well funded than any adult condition,” Dr. Aisen says. “Children don’t have a voice. In the end, people fight for what’s most relevant to them.”
That may explain the explosion of stem-cell research funding for end-of-life conditions like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke, but the lack of a single stem-cell clinical trial for the treatment of cerebral palsy. “Imagine how stem cells might be even more powerful in the highly plastic brain of a baby,” she says. “The lack of stem-cell research for cerebral palsy is mind-boggling.”
Dr. Aisen says we’ve never been closer to scientific discoveries that can benefit children with cerebral palsy. “We have such powerful pilot data and ideas and research talent, we just don’t have the funding for clinical trials.”
Constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT) – based on the premise that new motor pathways can be laid if a child with one-sided weakness is motivated to use the weak limb by casting the strong one and developing engaging virtual-reality and robotic applications that give the weak side a repeated workout – shows great promise, she says.
“We have the technologies and techniques that we know make an impact and if we just had a bit more research we could really explore how much, when, and what combination of things works best. The National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders have supported work into CIMT, but it hasn’t reached level-one evidence, which means double-blind, randomized control trials, which are expensive. No one is funding those studies. We need level-one evidence to convince policy-makers and insurers so that this therapy is offered in schools and paid for by Medicaid.”
Dr. Aisen says research into autism and cerebral palsy takes place in unnecessary silos. “We have two major developmental disorders of the brain that have overlaps. Many with autism have seizures and motor disorders (tics, lack of coordination and decreased muscle tone) and a meaningful number of people with cerebral palsy have symptoms that place them on the autism spectrum. We need to talk and exchange techniques and technologies and leverage resources.”
Other childhood disabilities face different funding challenges. Parents of children with Down syndrome worry that if cases continue to decline as a result of better prenatal diagnostic tools and higher abortion rates, funding to study the condition will dry up.
And then there are rare conditions – like that of my son Ben. When he was born, there were only 60 reported cases of Langer-Giedion syndrome in the world. Rare syndromes have no political leverage unless their study can be shown to shed light on more common diseases. For example, one of two genes deleted in Langer-Giedion syndrome is a tumour suppressor – which has made it of interest to cancer researchers.