Here’s how this is supposed to work: Things happen and science explains why.
But sometimes things happen that science can’t explain. And serendipity leads the way.
It’s when someone like Dallas scientist Tony Wood, struck with a fatal disease, finds himself unwittingly offering hope for his own despair.
For years, Wood put his tinkering, connect-the-dots mind to work for companies like Texas Instruments, filing dozens of patents and focusing on improving conditions for the less fortunate.
Fifteen years ago, he co-created technology to help grow plants in water that more recently has shown surprising, if mysterious, promise in treatment of neuro-inflammatory diseases such as muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s and asthma.
Last year, safety studies were being conducted to pave the way for medical use of his device when Wood found himself struggling to shuffle cards or use the TV remote. Within months, he found he had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The disease has progressed unmercifully fast. Wood, 69, cannot lift his arms or move his legs. He can barely speak and uses his chin to operate his wheelchair. So discouraged by the disease’s rapid effects and his inability to tinker anymore, he was ready to give up.
Then he realized that ALS was among the set of diseases for which the oxygen-infused saline created by his technology could be potentially revolutionary.
He felt he had reason to live again.
With Food and Drug Administration approval, he’s volunteered to be his own guinea pig. He’s now a one-man research trial, working with a UT Southwestern Medical Center neurologist and a product he himself made possible.
As he puts it: “I am my own experiment.”
As a boy, Wood worked in a Dallas electronics shop, repairing TVs, irons and vacuum cleaners. “I had an insatiable curiosity about how things worked,” he said.
He graduated from Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas and earned a degree in physics from the University of Texas at Arlington. That led to a career at Texas Instruments and then his own scientific venture, which he sold in 2004.
Ever the tinkerer, he rebuilt Jeeps and remodeled homes around his Lakewood neighborhood in his spare time.
In the late 1990s, Wood was in his garage, trying to find ways to rapidly fold gases into liquids.
“He thought it could help with wastewater treatment or ethanol production,” said Richard Watson, chief science officer for Tacoma-based Revalesio, the firm that bought Wood’s company in 2004. “He’s such a visionary on a lot of fronts.”
Though he didn’t yet realize it, the machine he would devise marshaled the forces of “nanobubbles,” microscopic bubbles that science says shouldn’t exist. And yet, somehow they do.
It’s hard enough for regular-size bubbles to exist. Their thin walls burst once external pressure overpowers the gas force inside them. The smaller the bubble, the less likely it can withstand those outer forces; in fact, the internal pressure would have to rival that found a kilometer below sea level.
“Would-be nanobubbles (should) collapse before they can even form,” an article in New Scientist magazine said in its July issue.
And yet, as scientists around the world began to show in experiments with water-resistant surfaces, they did exist.
“No one can say how,” New Scientist wrote. “So far none of the proposed explanations quite has the ring of truth.”
Wood, meanwhile, was busy pondering. Plant growth was already accelerated in hydroponic environments. What if you could infuse that water with oxygen? What could that do for food production in remote Third World communities?
He and engineer Norm Wooten devised a prototype, and the so-called “food machine” is now at work in Cambodia.
“I certainly did not start out wanting to find a nanobubble,” Wood said. “All I wanted to do was put more oxygen in the water.”
But in time, others considered the technology’s potential medical uses; in 2007, Stanford University researchers showed that oxygen-infused saline could produce steroid-like anti-inflammatory results.
“We thought: If that’s true, all these inflammatory diseases should be beneficially affected,” Revalesio’s Watson said.
Multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s — whatever sets off these neuro-inflammatory diseases, a common thread of chemicals binds them as they crescendo toward destruction of the body’s central nervous system.
The oxygen-enriched saline, called RNS60, seems to shut those chemical processes off, he said, and results of the company’s studies have begun to emerge in publications such as The Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Phase 2 clinical trials for asthma and multiple sclerosis are planned or under way.
Last year, Wood flew to a science conference at Oxford. He remembers his left leg buckling as he got off the plane. A result of the long flight, he figured.
But his body continued to weaken. Eventually, his hands began to curl. He was diagnosed with ALS and is now on permanent disability.
“Some people may not get to this stage for years,” said Janel Wood, his wife of 25 years. “Tony got to this stage in months.”
Two days after Christmas, Wood woke up so weak he couldn’t get out of bed. He was rushed to the hospital and placed in intensive care.
Then, he said, he had a vision. The message: You have more work to do.
The doctors presented the papers he and Janel had filled out with a “do not resuscitate” directive should it come to that. All he had to do was sign. “Is this what you want?” they asked.
Unable to speak, he shook his head no. And using the letter chart Janel had designed for him to communicate, he spelled out three words:
I GOTTA TRY.
Janel still remembers that day in the ICU, when Tony suggested that doctors try using RNS60 on him. “They just listened politely,” she said.
Now, twice a week, she takes Tony to the infusion clinic at UT Southwestern for exactly that. Wood’s regimen, approved by the hospital’s internal review board and sanctioned by the FDA as a single-patient trial for ALS, began in March.
Recently, Janel piloted Wood’s motorized wheelchair into the clinic, where nurse Natasha Jones probed for the vein on the back of his hand into which the fluid would be injected.
Because ALS progresses differently in each individual, it may be hard to determine much from the one-person trial unless Wood’s disease stops completely or significantly. But Watson said his symptoms seem to have reached a plateau.
What doctors hope to see are measurable side effects or signs of increasing muscle strength.
“It could take months to be able to see that,” said UT Southwestern neurologist Jeffrey Elliott. “We’re patient.”
Shoeless and stiff in his spiffy purple shirt, fresh off a tracheotomy, Wood looked frail, a long way from the robust, pony-tailed scholar who once split time between Dallas and Tacoma as Revalesio’s research and development director.
Unable to swallow, his speech slurred and nearly indecipherable, he craved the simple pleasures of coffee and Klondike bars.
Though his body cannot work, his mind can. His toughest challenge now is dealing with the frustration of being unable to contribute as he once did, but the Woods plan to travel to Tacoma by month’s end so he can continue to offer his expertise.
He’ll continue his treatment there, working with doctors at the University of Washington.
“Yes, it would be best if he could walk and talk and move his arms,” Janel said. “But inside, he’s still the same. Patents are happening all over the place, and he wants to be there.
“I’ve heard him say so many times that science is really about failure. Over and over you might fail, but that one time you really do solve the problem, then all the doors open up.”
Pursuing failure might seem futile to some. But for a man who is now a lab rat for his own invention, an invention based on a phenomenon that scientists say shouldn’t exist — well, maybe that’s more like faith.
The experience, Wood said, has given him a deeper spiritual understanding of himself.
“I am much more than flesh and bones,” he has written. “I am an active, participating human, aware of being in service to others.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com