SMA is a rare hereditary neuromuscular disease that causes weakness and muscle wasting as a result of the loss of spinal motor neurons. In its most severe form, SMA is the commonest genetic cause of death in infants, and children with less severe forms of SMA face the prospect of lifelong disability from progressive muscle wasting, loss of mobility and limb weakness. The initial discovery of the defective gene has been followed by major advances in our understanding of the genetic, cellular and molecular basis of SMA, providing the foundation for a range of approaches to treatment, including gene therapy, antisense oligonucleotide treatments and more traditional drug-based approaches to slow or halt disease progression. The approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of Spinraza (nusinersen), the first targeted treatment for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), is a historic moment. Disease-focused research charities, such as The SMA Trust (UK), continue to have a crucial role in promoting the development of additional treatments for SMA, both by funding translational research and by promoting links between researchers, people living with SMA and other stakeholders, including pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers.Gene Therapy advance online publication, 22 June 2017; doi:10.1038/gt.2017.47.