New Treatment Scores Big for Sports Broadcaster

Ben Wilson
Ben Wilson, a Columbia-based sports broadcaster, suffered from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that causes breathing problems. MU Health Care allergist Christine Franzese, MD, treated him with a new therapy called NUCALA, which has allowed him to breathe freely and get back to calling the action at local games.

Kickoff was just two hours away, and play-by-play announcer Ben Wilson paced through the crowded press box at Battle High School in Columbia looking for a suitable spot to broadcast that night’s football game against the Rock Bridge Bruins. The enclosed booths were already taken, so Wilson and his crew settled on an outdoor balcony to call the game for a local TV station. 

Dr. Christine Franzese
Christine Franzese, MD

Just as the production team had its equipment in place, a cold drizzle began. Wilson had forgotten to pack a coat. As he took stock of the situation, he smiled.

“That’s just the way it goes sometimes,” he said.

Standing in the rain for a few hours didn’t bother Wilson, but such an ask might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. During his time as a student at the University of Missouri, the budding broadcaster began to suffer health problems that interfered with his ability to call sporting events.

“There were multiple times doing games where I was having to catch my breath between plays,” Wilson said. “I felt like I was gasping for air. I was really congested, so I wasn’t able to really project. It was hard.”

The asthma symptoms slowly got worse. During his junior year at Mizzou, Wilson made six trips to the emergency room for symptoms that included lung issues, skin rashes and gastrointestinal pains. The problems began to dominate his life.

“It was really hard to have much of a social life and then hard to do a lot of the other activities I was really accustomed to doing,” Wilson said.

Doctors eventually diagnosed Wilson with a rare autoimmune disorder called Churg-Strauss syndrome, which causes blood vessel inflammation. In mild cases, it can lead to asthma, hay fever and sinus pain. In severe cases, it can reduce blood flow to vital organs and cause multiple health problems. Without treatment, the disease can be fatal. There is no cure.

Wilson’s doctors prescribed a steroid called prednisone to keep the inflammation in check. But the medication did little to improve his performance in the broadcast booth. 

“You wake up, and you donʼt recognize yourself in the mirror. I had always been a guy pretty well in shape, and all of a sudden I had no stamina and a lot of fatigue,” Wilson said. “Your face just blows up, and being on camera for a lot of these broadcasts that I do, I’m watching myself thinking the appearance and the voice were not where I wanted them to be.”

One of Wilson’s doctors connected him to Christine Franzese, MD, an allergist at MU Health Care. Franzese is one of the few doctors in Missouri with the proper expertise and clinical support to prescribe and administer a new treatment for Churg-Strauss syndrome called mepolizumab, commonly known as NUCALA. The FDA approved NUCALA last year to treat Churg-Strauss syndrome, but it was previously approved in 2015 to treat a type of severe asthma. It’s also being studied as a treatment for nasal polyps and sinus disease.  

“NUCALA is a biologic therapy that’s basically a humanized antibody to a particular chemical in your blood,” Franzese said. “The one it targets is an inflammatory chemical called IL5, which causes eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, to malfunction.”

Franzese began administering NUCALA once per month and was able to wean Wilson off the steroid treatments. She still remembers the first follow-up appointment after beginning the new treatment. 

“I didn’t recognize him,” Franzese said. “He looked like a completely different person. The physical and mental changes were amazing.” 

Wilson said it took about a year to completely taper off the steroids and feel normal again. He said finding Franzese and NUCALA changed his life.

“It feels great. It was just like this miracle drug had taken over,” he said. “Over the past year, I’ve started to get more opportunities with some of the bigger networks. I really feel like for the first time I can do what I love, uninhibited, not worry about the other stuff.”

Even on a chilly Friday evening, without a jacket, standing in the rain.

“Broadcasting helped me get through it at the start because it was that type of obsession for me and knowing that I wanted to get better,” Wilson said. “The only way I was going to get through this was just by fighting past it and focusing on my career.”