What Was the Movie "Lorenzo's Oil" About?

The Real-Life Inspiration Behind the Movie

Rapeseed oil
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In 1992, director George Miller turned the real-life story of the Odone family and their struggle to find a cure for adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) into the movie, Lorenzo's Oil, starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. Sarandon received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role as Michaela Odone.

Lorenzo Odone was the son of Michaela and Augusto Odone who was diagnosed in 1984 with the childhood cerebral form of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a progressive degenerative nervous system disorder.

At the time of his diagnosis, Lorenzo was only six years old, and his parents were told there is no cure for the disease, which causes progressive disability and death within a few years. 

Michaela and Augusto Odone, devastated by Lorenzo's diagnosis, decided to research ALD even though neither has a scientific or medical background. The movie shows the Odones often working at odds with skeptical doctors, scientists, and support groups. Michaela and Augusto spent countless hours in medical libraries reading journal articles and talking to researchers and doctors. After much hard work and some inspiration, they help develop a treatment for ALD made from olive and rapeseed, which they name "Lorenzo's Oil."

ALD is a genetic disease that affects about one in 18 000 people. The disease, which affects boys and men most severely, destroys the protective myelin sheath around the brain's neurons. 

Who Is at Risk?

ALD is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the X chromosome. Because boys and men do not have a second X chromosome like females do, those who inherit the genetic abnormality will get the disease. 

The childhood form of the disease, Childhood Cerebral Demyelinating ALD, appears mostly between ages four and ten years old, causing boys with previously normal development to exhibit worsening symptoms including behavioral problems, blindness, deafness, seizures, loss of muscle control, and progressive dementia.

Eventually, either permanent disability or death will occur, usually from two to five years from the time of diagnosis. 

Three other types of the disease exist as well, including:

  • Adrenomyeloneuropathy (AMN), which is the adult form that affects about half of the males who inherit the mutated gene. This type does not cause symptoms to develop until the early 20s or 30s and generally symptoms progress more slowly, but cause the same neurological deterioration and result in death or a vegetative state in five years or longer. 
  • Addison's Disease: Most males with ALD/AMN also have Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal gland. For about 10 percent of patients with ALD, Addison's disease is the only manifestation of the disorder. 
  • Female ALD: Females who inherit the ALD gene mutation don't usually develop the neurological disease, but may experience some mild symptoms that develop in adulthood, usually after age 35. These symptoms may include progressive stiffness, weakness, or paralysis of the lower limbs, numbness, pain in the joints, and urinary problems.

    Treatments

    Lorenzo's oil and stem cell transplantation are the only available treatments for the childhood form of ALD, but both are useful only in stopping the progress of the disease and not in healing damage already done. For that reason, early diagnosis and treatment is optimal. 

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