More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Carl Lewis boosts race against MS

10/09/2001 - Updated 04:56 PM ET
By W. Reed Moran, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Nine-time Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis says that in order to win, it's essential to be able to summon previously unknown courage in the face of adversity. But Lewis possibly the greatest track-and-field athlete of all time also knows that the fortitude necessary to prevail against long odds comes from outside as well as from within.

That's why he showed up early last Sunday at the beach in Santa Monica, Calif.

"I'm here to witness and support what real courage is all about," says Lewis, scanning the horizon. "I want the competitors in the water to know we're here for them, and we applaud their struggle against an incredible athletic challenge and a tough, debilitating disease."

Lewis, other Olympic athletes, and a crowd of enthusiastic fans were on hand for the third annual Turning the Tides on Multiple Sclerosis event that features a 38-mile swim race from Catalina Island to mainland Santa Monica.

Founding friends

Turning the Tides is an international celebration of courage over adversity, and its mission is to raise awareness and funds for the cure of multiple sclerosis. Lewis is a long-time friend of fellow runner and event co-founder Dr. Chris Vincent.

"Chris and I ran for the Santa Monica track club for many years," says Lewis. "He's found a way to bring attention to the hope and fortitude it takes to overcome one of the many unexpected obstacles that comes in our path."

Vincent has been best friends with fellow athlete Mike Taylor since they met over 15 years ago. "During the 1993 training session, Mike started to limp a little after a routine three-mile run," says Vincent. "Neither of us thought much of it."

But after six months of symptoms and inconclusive explanations, Taylor was dealt a devastating blow. "Mike was 25, in the peak of condition, and engaged to be married," says Vincent. "Suddenly he was told he had multiple sclerosis, and in the next few months, Mike's life quickly fell apart."

Vincent recounts that in short order his best friend lost his fiancée, his job as a graphic designer and also his will to live.

"All of a sudden here we were, sitting on a beach in Portugal, and Mike was ready to throw in the towel," says Vincent. "But at the end of the day we both thought, 'to hell with this our fight isn't over.'"

"During our time in Portugal, Mike found that long swims in the cold Atlantic actually improved his condition," says Vincent. "And even though Mike had reluctantly become dependent on a wheelchair shortly after his diagnosis, we set on a plan to show the world what we could do individually and for others."

Taylor soon became the first disabled individual to swim the 24-mile span of the English Channel. Both he and Vincent wanted to use this achievement somehow to bring attention and new sources of funding to the battle against MS.

The result was the inception of Turning the Tides, whose success this year reflected the patience and persistence necessary to face a daunting and sometimes frightening adversary in MS.

"Many scars"

While estimates vary widely, multiple sclerosis literally "disease of many scars" probably afflicts more than 500,000 people in the USA. Scars or scleroses form lesions on nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. chord. These lesions interfere with "short-circuit" the proper transmission of nerve impulses to other parts of the body.

Although symptoms differ uniquely for people with MS, some of the most common are:

As the extent of nerve damage increases, the severity of symptoms can increase over time. Researchers believe the damaging lesions are caused by an autoimmune reaction, where the body's defense mechanism mistakenly attacks its own tissue.

Because the possibility of relapse or remission is constant, unpredictability is perhaps the most consistent characteristic of MS. And that's what Taylor and his fellow-competitors encountered shortly after the start of this year's race.

The swimming teams each with an MS participant left Catalina Island without a hitch. "But after dark, within three minutes, we went from unlimited visibility to complete white out," says Vincent.

Impenetrable fog had suddenly engulfed dozens of swimmers, their spotters and rescue teams in the middle of chaos. "We radioed all the teams. Word came back that Portugal couldn't find its swimmer or spotting kayak."

While over 30 boats scrambled to locate their teams in the fog, the U.S. team located the Portuguese team, only to realize it had lost its own. "The result was almost complete panic," says Vincent, "but cool heads prevailed."

All teams were finally reunited, and the race was rescheduled from a different location the following morning. "Unpredictability and unity served as a metaphorical example to us all," says Vincent. "Beyond the aspect of competition is the overriding lesson of community and perseverance against a common obstacle one we expect science will overcome in the near future."

Making waves

"The battle against MS is fought simultaneously on several fronts," says Dr. Mark Rizzo, professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. "We currently have therapies that help balance the immune system, alleviate symptoms, and are investigating restorative therapies that we hope will ultimately lead to a cure."

Rizzo and his research team are grateful beneficiaries of funds raised by Turning the Tide. "We have hope that a particular restorative therapy funded by this event will lead to significant advances in treatment," says Rizzo.

Rizzo is sanguine about the prospects of Schwann cell transplants, which are currently undergoing Phase I clinical trials. "One of the reasons nerve cells stop working properly in MS patients is the loss of their myelin sheaths," says Rizzo.

According to Rizzo, animal studies have indicated transplanted Schwann cells can be made to 'creep along' damaged nerve tissue and regenerate this protective layer. "What we don't know yet is whether this procedure is safe and effective in humans," says Rizzo.

But Rizzo reports that one such procedure has recently been conducted on a seriously ill MS patient. "We are quick to advise the public that while we don't expect this particular patient to recover in her advanced state of disease, we hope to determine whether Schwann cell transplants hold hope for others in the long-term."

Rizzo believes that a cure for to MS is within our grasp. "But in the rush for a cure, we must beware of scientific arrogance," says Rizzo. "Literally and figuratively, 'one step at a time' is the best path to victory."

"You can't see the finish line until you have the discipline and heart to constantly put one foot in front of the other," says Lewis. But as he congratulated the teams who came ashore, everyone could definitely feel that the race is on.