Two decades after developing a “wonder drug,” a U of M alumnus still rides high in
the saddle with his impact on health care issues.
By Greg Russell
C. Budd Colby could have chosen to just ride off into the sunset. Instead, the renowned
drug researcher-turned equestrian — still bent on helping others — decided to blaze
new trails: the U of M alumnus now lends his expertise to a unique type of therapy
that uses highly trained horses to improve the quality of life of individuals with
“It has been said that there is nothing as good for the inside of a person as the
outside of a horse. Horse people are OK,” says Dr. Colby, whose accomplishments include
developing several prescription drugs for maladies ranging from multiple sclerosis
to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. His “wonder drug” Betaseron was the first FDA-approved
medication for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Colby serves on the board of directors and is chair emeritus of the National Center
for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT) in Woodside, Calif. NCEFT uses hippotherapy,
which utilizes the movements of trained horses to provide physical and occupational
therapy to individuals with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple
sclerosis and autism, among other disabilities.
Colby says a horse can provide sensory input to an individual with a disability through
its rhythmic and repetitive stride that is similar to the movement patterns of a person’s
pelvis as that person walks. “A horse and a man have remarkably similar walking gaits,”
This similarity and using it in therapy has often had dramatic results: individuals
with cerebral palsy and other diseases have gained noticeable increases in gross motor
capacity, which provides them with more freedom of movement and other neurological
and psychological advantages. Reliance on artificial aids, such as wheelchairs, is
decreased, while self-confidence and self-esteem see an upswing.
“The fundamental issue in cerebral palsy is that the brain doesn’t know where the
various parts of the body are in threedimensional space, hence problems with gross
motor functioning such as balance and walking, as well as fine motor control such
as writing and speech,” says Colby. “Putting a kid with cerebral palsy on a horse
and walking them around allows the brain to experience repeated sequential movements,
such as walking, for the first time.”
To achieve desired therapeutic results, sessions can be extremely labor intensive.
“There is the therapist, the horse handler, two side walkers and one front walker
for safety,” Colby says. “As the horse moves out at the walk, the child is protected
from falling and the brain begins to recognize repetitive signals for the first time.
As the therapy sessions are repeated over and over again, the brain acquires independent
balance. Eventually the brain becomes wired for balance to the extent that the child
begins to demonstrate gross motor capacity.”
|Colby at left, serves as biomedical consultant for NCEFT.
Colby doesn’t have to look far to see just how dramatic results can be. His daughter,
Charlie, was born with cerebral palsy and at 3 months of age, she also suffered traumatic
brain injury in a car crash that killed her mother and left her with learning difficulties.
After 10 years at the center, she had noticeable results.
“Charlie went from crawling only, at 4 years of age, through a wheelchair phase, and
eventually to being able to effectively use a walker as her primary means of travel.
Currently she uses the walker at school, but when we go to a movie or a restaurant,
we just walk in holding hands.” Colby says auxiliary benefits include increased upper-body
strength and posture improvement.
Colby has certainly made a mark on the center as its biomedical consultant, but it
was many years earlier that his name found permanent residence in major medical journals
throughout the world.
A new frontier
“I had a horrible burn when I was 19 months old, and I was in the hospital a long
time. I had a cousin die of leukemia when she was 11. I have always been aware of
severe health problems,” says Colby in describing why he became interested in the
medical field. “At that point, I was aware that I wanted to do something in science.
My interest in finding ways to help humans has always been there.”
Colby began his quest to assist others when he enrolled at then-Memphis State in 1959,
earning a BA in chemistry four years later. He took the definition of “working your
way through college” to the max.
“I would get up and go to MSU (Memphis State) for five hours of classes, then drive
to a job for eight hours and then come home and study into the wee hours of the night.
It was a lot of hard work, a lot of long days but it was hard work that paid off.”
He studied biochemistry and biophysics en route to a PhD at the University of Kentucky
in 1967. It was then that he was able to ramp up his research interests thanks to
a prestigious grant.
“I was fortunate enough to get an American Cancer Society postdoctoral scholarship
and come out to UC Berkley to do postdoctoral research. The reason I went to Berkley
was that I wanted to get into research in mammalian cells and viruses. I thought that
might be the next coming frontier. As it turns out, it was.”
Colby’s focus was on research, but two of his stops included teaching stints. He
served as an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Connecticut
from 1970-1973 and as an associate professor of genetics at the University of California,
Davis, the following three years.
|Colby's daughter, Charlie has benefited immensely from hippotherapy.
But research soon captured his undivided attention. For people with multiple sclerosis,
this proved to be a blessing.
While Colby’s co-workers were trying to figure out how viruses kill cells, he said
he became curious about “what a cell was doing about this insult.”
That led to his groundbreaking research in interferons, and ultimately, the first
FDA-approved drug for treating multiple sclerosis. Interferons are proteins made and
released by cells in response to viruses and trigger the immune system.
“When a virus infects a cell, even though that cell is going to die, before it does
so, it turns on that interferon gene. Protein is then made and is released from the
infected cell and goes out into the body’s system to cells that are not yet infected,
doing a sort of a Paul Revere: ‘The viruses are coming, the viruses are coming.’”
Then, Colby says, the body’s immune system can put up a defense to these invaders.
But until Colby’s research, it was never completely clear how the cell knew to make
“Normally it (the cell) doesn’t produce interferons. Something has to trigger that
gene to be expressed. I worked on that and I made observations that were quite unexpected.
It sent me off and running on a wonderful career.”
In 1976, Colby continued his research into the “whys” and “hows” of interferons at
Sloan Kettering Institute in New York as a founding member of the International Laboratories
for the Molecular Biology of Interferon Systems.
His research in the late 1970s coincided with a boom in biotechnology.
“The new biotech companies all had the same short list: they wanted to use recombinant
(artificial) DNA technology to mass produce human insulin, human growth factor, human
interferons, and so forth. Because of my previous research and interests, I had expertise
Colby looked for a way to mass-produce interferons and what it might benefit, and
in 1979, he started the recombinant interferon program at Cetus Corp. in Emeryville,
“We got the interferon genes expressed and figured out how to produce them in large
Four years later at Triton Biosciences, he was the lead technical person on the
team responsible for developing human recombinant interferon-beta for multiple sclerosis.
The resulting drug, Betaseron, was approved by the FDA in 1993.
“It was really important because up until that time, there was no treatment for multiple
sclerosis,” Colby says. “Everybody believed you couldn’t treat the disease. Since
we had shown that was incorrect, that stimulated further research.”
Betaseron slows down the destruction of the brain in multiple sclerosis patients:
the brain has fewer lesions and the patient has fewer attacks, which means less damage
to a person’s nerve system.
At Triton Biosciences, Colby also directed the research team that developed the drug
Fludara for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Fludara treatment can interfere with the
growth of the cancer cells, which are eventually destroyed.
Back in the saddle
Colby founded his own international consulting firm in 1991, but he always finds his
way back to the saddle. He is a founding member of the Mounted Search and Rescue Unit
of the Office of the Sheriff of San Mateo County in California.
“Callouts come with absolutely no regular frequency and with no regard whatsoever
to the weather or time,” Colby says. “Our subjects include small children who have
wandered away from their parents, Alzheimer’s patients and people with disabilities
with low functioning capabilities. Occasionally we find a subject at the bottom of
a steep canyon with a broken arm or leg, the next day.”
His current pro bono activities include serving as a member of the board of trustees
of the Northern California Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Board
of Scientific and Business Advisers of Fast Forward, a research arm of the National
Multiple Sclerosis Society. He is also on the Multiple Sclerosis Advocacy Team that
lobbies at both the state and national level for health care legislation.
He says he can always find time for a ride among the redwoods of California.
“There is a unique relationship between a horse and man,” says Colby, whose 6-5 frame
allows him to sit high in the saddle John Wayne-style. “Upon graduating from the University,
there is absolutely no way that I could have imagined the life that I would live.
My successful research in the area of multiple sclerosis and my involvement with the
Mounted SAR Unit has allowed me to give back in the two areas that I have enjoyed
so very much: science and horses. For this, I am grateful indeed.”