Astrocytes are star-shaped cells that are the most common cell in the human brain and have now been grown from embryonic and induced stem cells in the laboratory of UW-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. Once considered mere putty or glue in the brain, astrocytes are of growing interest to biomedical research as they appear to play key roles in many of the brain's basic functions, as well as neurological disorders ranging from headaches to dementia. In this picture astrocyte progenitors and immature astrocytes cluster to form an "astrosphere." The work was conducted at UW-Madison's Waisman Center. (Photo provided by Robert Krencik/ UW-Madison)
ALS has been getting a lot of press lately, with the rampant “ALS ice bucket challenges” that have everyone from your next-door neighbors to whole sports teams to over 120 celebrities like Matt Damon and Kim Kardashian recording videos of themselves dumping buckets of icy water over their heads to raise awareness and donations for ALS research, and then challenging their friends to do the same. While the ice bucket challenge is relatively new, ALS itself has been around for a long time.
ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, was commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease for several decades, after the Hall of Fame baseball player who succumbed to it. It is not a viral or bacterial or immunodeficient disease, it’s not contagious, and very little is known about how to cure it. Medication for it is practically nonexistent. Its effects are heartbreaking, with muscle control gradually breaking down to the point of preventing its victims from speaking, swallowing, moving their limbs, and even breathing. Most ALS patients are given a few months or years to live.
Meet Cathy Jordan
Cathy Jordan is a resident of Parrish, Florida, which is near Bradenton, just south of the greater Tampa area. She was diagnosed with ALS in 1986 and given 3-5 years to live. Her husband Bob stood by her but prepared to take care of her in her final few years of life. Now, almost thirty years later, Cathy Jordan is still alive. She is in a wheelchair and cannot use her limbs, but her face is animated and her spirit active. She has actually outlived most of the doctors who treated her in the 80s and gave her the sentence of 3-5 years left to live. She lives with ALS every day, and has not succumbed to it.
Cathy’s secret weapon
For nearly three decades, Cathy Jordan has smoked marijuana. For twenty of those years, she and her husband Bob have grown it themselves. And her use of marijuana has kept her ALS at bay and allowed her to live more than twenty years longer than expected.
Like many medical marijuana patients, Cathy discovered this curative by accident. At one of her lowest points post-diagnosis, she was spending time with friends in Florida (she and Bob lived in Delaware at the time) who offered her recreational marijuana to share. She accepted. Shortly after, she realized that smoking it made her feel better and alleviated some of her ALS symptoms. She returned to Delaware a new woman, and though it took some convincing initially, she talked Bob both into helping her continue medical marijuana treatment and to moving to Florida to obtain the cannabis more easily. They have lived there ever since.
Preliminarily, there was no real science behind this solution for Cathy. She just knew it worked. And even in the interim decades, there has been very little study into the effects of medical marijuana on ALS. This is not surprising, since medical marijuana studies are still thin on the ground even today when twenty states have legalized it, and since ALS is a comparatively rare disease next to cancer, multiple-sclerosis, and HIV/AIDS, all of which can also be treated with medical marijuana but are much more common than ALS. But what few studies that have been done are optimistic. One particular study in 2004 noted that the cannabinoids in medical marijuana truly seemed to slow the spread of ALS and alleviate many of its symptoms, allowing the disease’s victims not only to live longer, but to retain muscle control and thus normalcy of life longer as well.
The problem with Cathy’s miraculous treatment: technically it’s illegal. Florida has not yet legalized medical marijuana, though a 1991 ruling does set a precedent that those who can prove they have a medical need for cannabis can possess and use it. Nevertheless, Cathy and Bob Jordan have struggled periodically to be able to keep her medical marijuana available. As recently as 2013 their home was raided by the police and their plants confiscated, though no official charges were leveled by the city. And with the upcoming vote on Amendment 2, which would legalize medical marijuana throughout Florida, some vocal opposition to Cathy’s continued use of medical marijuana has arisen, especially from anti-pot groups like Vote No On 2.
Cathy perseveres. During her twenty-plus years as a self-medicating medical marijuana patient, she has also served as one of the state’s strongest advocates for legalization. She knows better than anyone that medical marijuana can save lives.