A Q&A with Nobel Prize Recipient Sir Richard Roberts, Ph.D., F.R.S.
Sir Richard Roberts won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for the discovery of the mechanism of gene splicing, which opened the door to new insights into therapeutics development.
He has a very personal connection to the mission of InVivo Therapeutics: His son Andrew was in a car accident at age 20 and suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him unable to move his arms or legs. Hoping to make a difference for other families with spinal cord injury, Dr. Roberts later joined the scientific advisory board and the board of directors at InVivo, which is developing the Neuro-Spinal ScaffoldTM for the treatment of acute spinal cord injury.
Dr. Roberts is the chief scientific officer of New England BioLabs, which specializes in the discovery, development and commercialization of reagents for genomic research.
We talked with Dr. Roberts about his son’s spinal cord injury, the standard of care for treatment – and the potential for future improvements.
Could you please share a little bit about your family’s experience with spinal cord injury?
We got a call in the middle of the night, telling us our son had been in a car accident and was badly injured. They didn’t know how long he might have to live. I got down there as fast as I could.
Andrew was in Florida at the time of his accident. He was in the Navy and had been on leave for the day, and he was driving back to his base when a drunk driver plowed into him. He was 20 at the time.
It was a very difficult time.
What was it like as a family adjusting to your new reality?
It took a lot of time and attention to ensure Andrew was getting proper care. The emotional toll was the most difficult part. Every day when I was driving to the hospital, I’d be wondering, what am I going to find when I get there? On the way back, I’d be wondering: What more could I have done? What didn’t I do? It’s devastating from an emotional standpoint as a parent.
Andrew actually deals with it better than I do. He spent time at The Courage Center in Minneapolis, where he received a lot of psychological counseling that empowered him to take charge of his situation. The Courage Center was heavily focused on ensuring that Andrew was able to make the most of his ‘new normal’ and restore whatever independent function he could.
After rehabilitation, Andrew was able to live on his own, with the support of a caregiver. He attended University of California, Berkley and pursued a degree in computer science for a few years.
What has he done in the years since?
He finds it more difficult to move about in his wheelchair now and he has to spend a lot of time in bed, so he enjoys activities that stimulate his mind.
He and I used to play chess over email all the time. As a kid, he’d never beaten me. Then suddenly I noticed that he was getting progressively better. One day, he beat me. Eventually, he confessed that he had been taking lessons from a Russian grand master.
He communicates a lot with friends by email and Zoom. He loves movies and documentaries. Once a year, he goes into New York City to visit friends and go to the theater. He deals with it much better than I do.
As a scientist who has made groundbreaking discoveries, do you believe the field of spinal cord injury is ripe for innovation?
I have felt that way for a long time. The standard of care really has not changed in 30 years.
That is why I wanted to get involved with InVivo.
When I first heard about Bob Langer’s innovation and learned that spinal cord regeneration might be possible, I was really excited. Even though I knew it would not be possible to help my son, I thought it would be great if this technology could help others.
Those of us who live a “normal” life have a hard time imagining what it means to live with spinal cord injury.
The standard of care really has not changed in 30 years.
What can we do to encourage more scientific and clinical innovation?
I often say that anything worth doing is risky. If you’re not prepared to take a risk, you will not make a great advance.
You also have to know that it takes a long time to get from a basic scientific discovery to an approved drug. I made the discovery for which I won the Nobel Prize in 1977, and it was just three years ago that the first clinical application came to fruition. In my case, it took 40 years for my research to reach the clinic.
Bob Langer, InVivo’s co-founder and an inventor of the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold, is a great example of someone who has repeatedly translated basic research into medical innovation. He is a great model.
What do you hope the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold could accomplish?
The beauty of the of the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold approach is that, once it is shown to be safe, InVivo can evaluate other approaches used in combination with the scaffold. For instance, you could add neural stem cells or therapeutics that would encourage restoration of neuronal connections.
For me, the first goal is to get the scaffold approved and see that it is useful for patients. That would open the door for the next stage of innovations, which I think could make a real difference.