Friday, August 11, 2000
Dispatch Accent Reporter
Compared with swimming the murky Mississippi, pedaling the nation has been a breeze for Nick Irons.
Irons, 28, of Washington arrived Thursday in Columbus near the conclusion of a 10,000-mile bicycle trip around the perimeter of the United States to raise money for multiple sclerosis.
Inspired by his father, who has battled MS for more than 20 years, Irons tackled his first endurance fund-raiser in 1997, when he swam the length of the Mississippi River.
A former competitive swimmer at Boston College, Irons swam six hours a day for four months, covering 1,550 miles from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge. Inoculations for typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis helped prepare him.
"Physically, this is a lot easier,'' Irons said of his bike trip. "It's also easier mentally. In the river, I was by myself. No one would jump in and swim the Mississippi with me. But somebody has been biking with me for most of my way around the country.''
So far, Irons has raised $800,000 for MS in donations, pledges, T-shirt sales and sponsorships.
On his 27-speed racing bike, he has been riding about four hours and 75 miles a day since April. He devotes the rest of his time to appearances.
"I pretty much have a full day,'' he said, "just basically meeting people and telling them why I am doing this.''
A former production assistant for the TV show American Gladiators, Irons has turned fund-raising for MS into a full-time job.
He founded and heads the nonprofit Going the Distance for MS, raising research money distributed through the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He pays himself $30,000 a year and relies on a volunteer staff made up mostly of family members.
"I will be doing this one way or another until we find a cure,'' Irons said.
He has been moved by the effect MS has had on his father, Dr. John Irons, an allergist in Bethesda, Md.
"MS has taken away his mobility,'' Irons said. "I've watched him steadily go downhill since he's had it.''
Nevertheless, the older Irons continues to practice medicine. He refuses to use a cane or walker, even though he may need 30 minutes to walk two blocks.
His father trained six months to ride a three-wheel recumbent bike alongside Irons for the first mile of the fund-raising tour.
"He firmly believes if he stops using his muscles he will lose them,'' Irons said.
Dr. Irons is among many MS patients who have reaped the benefits of scientific research. His condition stabilized four years ago after he began taking Avonex.
"The medication has made a big difference,'' Irons said. "He is not getting worse, and that is all we can ask for now.''
Avonex, Betaseron and Copaxone make up the so-called "ABC'' drugs that halt the disease's progress.
Approved within the past decade, the drugs mark "enormous progress'' in treatment, said Dr. Kottil W. Rammohan of Ohio State University.
"These are the first drugs to change the natural history of the disease,'' Rammohan said. "After we administer these drugs, we stop seeing (brain) lesions on the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).''
MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system with symptoms that range from numbness in the limbs to paralysis and blindness.
Many scientists suspect MS is an autoimmune disease. Avonex and Betaseron modify the immune system to halt the damage of MS.
Copaxone is a synthetic protein that protects against the loss of myelin, the fatty sheath that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The destruction of myelin is responsible for the primary symptoms of MS, including paralysis.
A fourth drug, Novantrone, is expected to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this fall. It is a chemotherapeutic agent "that turns off the immune system in a big way,'' Rammohan said.
OSU researchers also are experimenting with the world's most powerful
medical imager to categorize types of MS and prescribe treatments accordingly.