Richard King Mellon Foundation Awards $1.5 Million Grant to UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Hopes of Discovering Vaccine for "New Polio"


October 06, 2020

PITTSBURGH (Sept. 16, 2020) - The Richard King Mellon Foundation has awarded a $1.5 million grant to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation in hopes of finding a vaccine for a rare and tragic childhood disease that strikes anew every two years and has been called the “new polio.”

“The vaccine for polio was discovered by Jonas Salk in Pittsburgh, and we are betting that the extraordinary researchers at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh have a real chance to prevent this ‘new polio’, too,” said Sam Reiman, Director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Like polio, Acute Flaccid Myelitis, or AFM, peaks every two years and causes tragic long-term consequences, including the inability to walk or even talk or breathe independently.

There already have been 21 cases this year, according to the CDC, with the peak season still ahead.

The Centers for Disease Control identified AFM as a new disease in 2014, and it has resurfaced every other year since, mostly during the August to November time period. There were 120 cases in the United States in 2014; 153 cases in 2016; and 238 cases in 2018, including 11 in Pennsylvania.

One of those 11 cases in Pennsylvania in 2018 was Sam Langol.

“Sam was diagnosed with AFM in September 2018,” said his mom, Stephanie Langol of Baldwin. “He was three years old at the time.”

That fall, everyone in the Langol household had caught the same cold. But for some reason, it hit Sam differently. The cold turned into a fever that spiked to 103 - and stayed there. A “typical boy - active and fearless,” according to his mom, Sam became lethargic and wanted to be held and carried. Sometimes his knees would suddenly buckle. “They’re not working,” Stephanie recalled Sam saying of his legs.

The Langols went twice to their pediatrician on successive days, but Sam did not improve. The next morning, Stephanie sat him up in bed to take off his pajama top. As soon as she removed her hands, he fell over. He could not hold himself up.

That’s when they went to UPMC Children’s Emergency Department. Doctors went from test to test, trying to discern what was wrong. As they worked on Sam, two other young children arrived in the Emergency Department with similar symptoms.

The next morning, Sam was in the ICU. He could only move his right foot. And the Langols heard a new term - Acute Flaccid Myelitis.

Sam soon will celebrate his fifth birthday, with AFM and his wheelchair as constant companions. Sam’s last two years have included a two-month stay at Johns Hopkins, two surgeries, and constant physical therapy. Sam can’t walk. He can’t feed himself. He can’t scratch his nose. But the Langols celebrate small victories wherever they can. “His trunk control is great. He can hold his own head up. And he can bend his right elbow - he didn’t do that for almost a year,” said Stephanie. They put all their energy into those improvements. Sam remains upbeat. And Stephanie optimistic. “Being negative is not going to help him walk again. This is not the end of the road. He has the most genuine sweet soul. He is going to do something amazing. And he is going to change lives. We don’t think this is Sam’s forever story.”

A vaccine won’t help Sam. Vaccines prevent diseases, they don’t cure them. But the Langols participate in research as much as they can, to do their part to help discover one. “The onset of fall 2020 is terrifying,” said Stephanie Langol. “We don’t want to even think about how many kids might be affected. If we can do anything to keep anybody else from having to go through it, we’re on it. We want to feed that research.”

“We are excited to begin this work and grateful to the Richard King Mellon Foundation for supporting us,” said Dr. Terence Dermody, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Pitt School of Medicine and physician-in-chief and scientific director at UPMC Children’s. Dr. Dermody, along with infectious disease researchers, Drs. John Williams and Carolyn Coyne, leads UPMC Children’s research team. “As illustrated by Sam’s case, AFM can be a devastating disease. There is much to learn about the viruses that cause AFM that will help us develop safe and effective vaccines. We hope to follow in the footsteps of Jonas Salk.”

Dermody added that the viruses that cause AFM are most likely transmitted by a cough or sneeze. “Therefore, the precautions to prevent transmission of COVID-19, namely frequent hand-washing, maintaining a distance of greater than 6 feet from other people, and masking, should decrease the likelihood of acquiring AFM.”

“The consequences of AFM are tragic,” said Reiman, “and the fact that this virus targets young children is particularly wrenching. By powering UPMC Children’s world-class research now, we hope a vaccine or therapeutic can be developed in time to mitigate the 2024 recurrence.”

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Founded in 1947, the Richard King Mellon Foundation is the largest foundation in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Foundation’s 2019 endowment was $2.7 billion and its Trustees in 2019 awarded 172 grants totaling $129 million, focused on the Foundation’s strategic priorities: economic development, education, environmental conservation and human services.