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Medical research: a dead end is never a failure

A paralysed man walks again after undergoing pioneering surgery in Poland. Darek Fidyka is thought to be the first person in the world to recover from a complete severing of the spinal cord, inflicted by a knife attack in 2010, with a ground-breaking implant of regenerative cells from his nose restoring sensation and muscle control to his legs.

Professor Geoff Raisman led the UK research team in a joint Anglo-Polish effort and said what had been achieved was ‘more impressive than man walking on the moon’. Today this treatment promises millions of paralysis sufferers the possibility of a cure. The breakthrough has come about thanks to the support of the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF), started by chef David Nicholls after his baby son was paralysed. To date, the charity has given £1 million to fund the research in London and a further £240,000 for the work in Poland.

David Nicholls said many people tried to put him off funding this experimental and unusual therapy; it would never work and he should just accept his son’s diagnosis. He of course ignored them and raised £1 million—a relatively small amount of money for the astonishing outcome we see today. His faith that things can change and his hope for the future sets an example to donors discouraged by current prognoses for conditions.

Profressor Raisman’s story, on the other hand, helps manage those expectations. He first had the idea for this type of work back in 1975. It has taken nearly 40 years to get here, and this work still needs to be repeated to prove that it works. The advance of medical science, and the work of the people who help fund it, can be a slow process.

There are a number of other good news stories coming out of medical research funded by charities. Medical research is the most popular cause for donors—receiving 16 per cent of donations according to the Charities Aid Foundation. Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s funding has led to a promising cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, now in clinical trials, which offers enormous hope to those who face progressive muscle wastage and an early death. And earlier this year, we heard that the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF) is paying to help treat and prevent Type 1 Diabetes.

However, medical research can sometimes be a thankless task. Plenty of donors have expressed to me their dismay when funding something that ultimately goes nowhere. Although they understand the slow and complex path that leads medical research to numerous dead ends before, if ever, coming to a successful conclusion, it can feel like a rather unfulfilling philanthropic journey.

These donors dream of the joy of David Nicholls, who set up his charity soon after his son was injured and has now, some ten years later, seen such remarkable results. But for every David Nicholls, we need donors who funded the treatment that didn’t work but allowed us to cross something off. For the failures of medical research are never really failures.

  • This article first appeared in Spear’s Magazine here.
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