Donald S. Wood, president and CEO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, has devoted much of his life to improving the lives of people with neuromuscular diseases. Even though there’s a long way to go, the positive results have changed lives.
One of Wood’s major roles was in the 1980s, serving as director of the MDA task force that led to finding the genetic cause of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease which leads to muscle weakness and muscle loss. “I felt that we needed to focus on the genetics of it at a time when there really was almost no technology that was able to identify a human gene like that,” says Wood (’73 PhD Physio.), who was born and raised in Seattle.
Wood says, “Maybe 20 years ago there were no treatments for any neuromuscular diseases, and in the past 12 years alone there were 15 new FDA-approved treatments.”
One example of improvement is in spinal muscular atrophy. When a certain form of it is developed at birth, a person used to not develop any muscle tone and usually didn’t survive beyond 18 to 24 months, Wood says. With a drug developed from the MDA’s support, he says, he’s now seeing children 5 years old and older who are at a very different level physically.
Wood has actually been involved with neuromuscular disease research and muscle research overall for roughly 50 years. “I was the first to be able to record the muscle strength of a single human muscle cell obtained from boys with muscular dystrophy and adults with muscular dystrophy,” he says. “And that was the first time anybody had ever seen single muscle cells and how they were affected by the disorder and regulated.”
Research has only continued to grow, and Wood explains that the MDA today links two great fields of research: development of new therapies and treatments, and new therapies for genetic disease.
“Being the leader of MDA allows me to participate in the development of what I call genetic medicine,” Wood says. “We are seeing advances in research and science that have never occurred before in human history. We are truly, truly changing the course of medicine. So much so that we have also been invited by the FDA to participate with many others in how to develop clinical trials in disorders where you don’t have enough people affected by them to do the gold standard—the double-blind placebo role trial.
“Most neuromuscular disorders are progressive, so whenever they start they get worse over time. Because they’re genetic, the question is at what point in time of the person’s progression will a treatment work to stop the disease? And how do you make people better when, in fact, the disease has actually caused the loss of tissue and the loss of function?”
Wood also leads the MDA in making strides in its national network of more than 150 care centers serving more than 60,000 patients a year.
And the organization doesn’t just serve people with muscular dystrophy. In fact, the first gene ever identified as contributing to a form of familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was discovered by MDA grantees as well as the first drug developed to slow the disease, Wood says. “We were never a single-disease organization. We went where the science took us in neuromuscular disease,” he says. In fact, the MDA has spent more than $1 billion in research in neuromuscular disease.
Wood credits WSU as crucial to his career and where he is today.
“I would say my success subsequently has been directly traceable to my time at Washington State University on several levels,” he says.
Attending a prestigious summer physiology course, which brought together students from around the world in 1969, contributed to his realization by comparing notes of the strong value of Washington State’s educational philosophy.
“What I got from Washington State University and what I brought to the table was a broad knowledge of biology, zoology, and physiology. That has helped me transition from physiology to genetics, from animal models to humans,” Wood says. “I’ve always been able to see the bigger picture in areas of science and medicine, and I trace that back to the time I was at Washington State University with their approach.”