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House Executive Producer Garrett Lerner Talks About Spinal Muscular Atrophy: What You Can Do to Help

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Some of you may recall a season four episode of House called “97 Seconds.” The patient, Stark, had a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The season before, House (Hugh Laurie) had an encounter with a little girl in “Merry Little Christmas” (he stole her French fries and had his patented epiphany moment with her arguing about whether her stuffed animal was a bear or a dog). She too suffered from SMA. Coincidence that two Princeton Plainsboro patients have come to our attention with this rare disease? Nope.

House executive producer/writer Garrett Lerner has a son with SMA, and we spoke by phone this morning about SMA, his son Zeke, and what people can do to help find the cure for this terrible (and sometimes fatal) disease.

SMA is a neuromuscular disease affecting the voluntary muscles used for crawling, walking, head and neck control, swallowing, and other activities. According to the Families of SMA website, “it is a relatively common ‘rare disorder’: approximately 1 in 6,000 babies born are affected, and about 1 in 40 people are genetic carriers.”

Lerner had never heard of the little known disease until Zeke was diagnosed at about one year old. “He never stood. Other kids were walking around and he wasn’t. It took around three to four months to get a diagnosis and the doctors were baffled.” Lerner related that it was years before his work on House and he was going through “a real-life diagnostic conundrum of my own. [Zeke] became weaker and weaker and then he finally stopped crawling. He was unable to crawl anymore and they finally figured out what was going on.”

Lerner explained that SMA is broken down into several types. “Type 1 is the most severe and that is characterized by children who are not even able to sit on their own as babies and the prognosis is horrible; they don’t make it out of childhood. Type 2 is what Zeke has. They are able to sit on their own, sometimes crawl on their own at a point, but never gain the ability to stand or walk. Type 3 comes on a bit later. Some of the kids are normal until they’re 5, 10 years old—even into their early teens."

“What happens is that the neurons stop carrying the signals from the brain to the muscles. It’s like a broken phone signal so the muscles don’t do what you want them to do, which causes them to grow weaker over time.”

Zeke is now nine years old, and “he’s the happiest kid I’ve ever met,” said Lerner. “The one ‘upside’ if there is one, is that he’s never known walking and doesn’t miss it. He’s just a happy kid cruising around in his wheelchair. You rarely see him not smiling.” Zeke attends regular school and has an aide provided for him full time by the county. The aide “helps him get things out of his backpack, etc.” The things most kids (and parents) take for granted. He loves video games and listening to music; Coldplay and U2 are by far his favorites.

As of now, SMA is incurable and untreatable. But, says Lerner, researchers are on the verge of a real cure. Of course money is needed to continue the work — and raise awareness of this disease. And Chase Community Giving Trust is sponsoring a way in which everyone can help — without giving a penny.

Chase is sponsoring a contest of sorts. People go onto a Facebook page, and cast their vote among 100 different charities chosen in an earlier round of the competition. The top vote-getting charity during this week-long final round will receive one million dollars to use in its work. The four runner-ups each receive $100 thousand. The Gwendolyn Strong Foundation (GSF), which supports SMA research, awareness, and advocacy, is one of the top vote-getting charities in the running. It’s in the top 10 as this goes to press. GSF was founded by Bill and Victoria Strong, who named the foundation for their two-year-old daughter who has Type I SMA.

Being one of the 100 charities selected for the final competition meant a $25,000 award from Chase. “Within days,” according to GSF’s site, the money was forwarded to a “groundbreaking program at the University of California Irvine, which is going to clinical trials [this year].” If GSF wins the final round, “100 percent of the $1 Million awarded by Chase directly to SMA Awareness and cure-focused research programs.”

Lerner feels like “raising money for this isn’t blind drops in a bucket. We’re really close to doing something concrete.” Lerner said that researchers are very close to producing a drug that produces the protein (SMN-2) missing in bodies of those with SMA. “I’ve met the people doing the research and I’ve seen what they’re going to be using it for. I know how much of difference it can make for so many people,” he explained.

Anyone who wants to vote for the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation should go to the GSF voting page. First become a “fan” and then cast your vote. It takes 30 seconds, doesn’t cost anything, and you’ll know you’re doing something good for a lot people. Fans can also help out by spreading the word, both about the competition and to raise awareness of the disease in any way they can: Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth. “What’s nice about this project is that no one has to ask for money — just a couple of clicks and a vote. My request is just for everyone to spread the word in whatever way they can for the next day.” [The competition ends at 11:59 p.m. Friday night, January 22.]

Of course I could not let Lerner get off the phone without asking him if he can tell me anything about what’s in store for the series. He and Russel Friend have written the episode coming up February 1 (“Moving the Chains”), which guest stars Orlando Jones as Foreman’s brother. “We’re currently working on the season finale,” he told me. “We also co-wrote the episode with Peter Blake and Eli Attie filming now — the one that Hugh Laurie’s directing.” It’s episode 17, guest starring David Strathairn in what Lerner promised would be “an incredible episode.”

The next episode of House (“Remorse”) airs Monday, January 25 at 8 p.m. ET. Good luck to Hugh Laurie who’s nominated in the Best Actor category for a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award. The SAG awards air Saturday night on TNT 8 p.m. ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Brandy D Shifflett

    Thanks so much for spreading the word about SMA! I also have a very special child with SMA and had never heard about it until it affected us. My daughter Emma was 16 months old when we entered the SMA life. She’s now going on six and I hope more than anything that there’s a cure in her lifetime! I also really feel that more people need to be educated on this condition! Together we will find a cure!

    Thanks,
    Brandy D Shifflett
    Visit Emma

  • barbara barnett

    Thanks for sharing that, Brandy. This clinical trial Garrett was talking about looks promising for so many.

  • Orange450

    Thanks to you for raising awareness, and thanks to Garrett Lerner for sharing his family’s struggles and triumphs. It’s heartening to hear that a real breakthrough could be so close. From the bottom of my heart I hope that Zeke and all the others affected by SMA will soon see a cure on the horizon. “Speedily, and in our day” as they say.

    When I think of the ordeal that Lerner and his wife went through when Zeke was a baby, their road to diagnosis, and the daily challenges that the whole family has to face, I really have the urge to tell House that normal isn’t overrated at all.

  • hiyacinth1

    Thankyou for posting the interview. I voted, my sister is severly dissabled with M.S. only yesterday in the press there was talk of a new drug, research like that has to be paid for, i hope the foundation win the money to help research into this terrible disease and help these wonderful children.

  • Brenda

    Thank you for bringing this subject to light. Having a 5 year old, something like this really hits close to home. I can’t imagine what the children and their families must endure on a daily basis.
    Here’s hoping for a cure to this debilitating disease.

  • Smtinsley

    Thank you so much for raising awareness of SMA! I have two beautiful daughters with SMA type 2… our story is very similar to Zeke. We can’t wait for a cure.

  • tricia

    I have never used facebook before. I created a user name, but have no clue how to vote. As the mother of an autstic child, I know how helpless you can feel at one moment and how blessed that special child can make you feel the next.

  • Beth Pence

    Thank you for your article letting people know about the devastating disease, sma. My grandson was diagnosed at 7 months old and like most I had never heard of this disease, the #1 genetic killer of children. My grandson has never been able to sit, roll over or crawl so he is in the Stage 1 category. It breaks my heart knowing what could lie in store for him if they don’t get the funding to find a cure.

  • barbara barnett

    Tricia go to voteforsma click on “become a fan” and then vote.

    Thanks everyone for your kind words about this column. I can think of no better way to use the power of the blogosphere and the media. I just found out this morning that my son-in-law’s mother (a chemist) one of the scientists working on this disease.

  • Delia_Beatrice

    Good luck to Zeke and all the other children affected by this disease or any other!
    Good luck to all of you who had the strength to share your stories here, i hope with all my heart that cures will be found and miracles will be possible for all these wonderful children!
    I myself was blessed with a overall healthy child, but still, his relatively minor health problems made me feel panic and pain and despair none the less. I also helped raise my 17 years-younger sister, who was born with cleft lip and palate and, even if her life is within “normal” outlines, there were and still are difficult times and i do know how it feels when you don’t have the power to really help a dear, helpless child who suffers.
    So, good luck to you all, may these children’s lives be better, longer and healthier!

  • barbara barnett

    Good Luck for the final six hours of the voting: help find the cure. Thanks to all for sharing stories of their own struggles and hopes for a cure!

  • http://twitter.com/b_barnett barbara barnett

    Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read about this disease and voting in the Chase Community Giving project. Gwendolyn Strong Foundation was one of the top vote-getting charities and won $100,000 for research, bringing them ever so much closer to a cure. Much thanks are due to House E.P/writer Garrett Lerner and the Twitter King himself Greg Yaitanes.

  • Debbie J

    I am sorry I didn’t read this article any sooner and that I missed the deadline to vote. I am glad they won $100,000 for their research.

    Here’s hoping that the research dollars help with finding a cure in Zeke’s – and others like him – lifetime.

    Barbara, did you mention how old Zeke is now?

  • barbara barnett

    Zeke is nine, I believe.