Stories about: Orphan diseases

Power to the people: Citizen science meets precision medicine for rare disease

At this recent GoldLab Symposium presentation in Colorado, parent Matt Might shows how it’s done.

People credit rapid next-generation gene sequencing for the increased pace of medical discovery. But patients and their families—especially those with rare or undiagnosed conditions—are emerging as the true engines of precision medicine. Racing against the clock to save their children, parents are building databanks, connecting scientific dots and fueling therapeutic advances that could otherwise take a decade or more to happen.

“There’s a culture shift,” said Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI), which hosted a conference titled Precision Medicine 2015: Patient Driven in late June. “A culture shift where patients feel empowered morally and intellectually to lead in precision medicine research and delivery.”

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Gene therapy to germline editing: Promises, challenges, ethics

A report this April rocked the scientific world: scientists in China reported editing the genomes of human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. It was a limited success: of 86 embryos injected with CRISPR/Cas9, only 71 survived and only 4 had their target gene successfully edited. The edits didn’t take in every cell, creating a mosaic pattern, and worse, unwanted DNA mutations were introduced.

“Their study should give pause to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes during [in vitro fertilization],” George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The New York Times. “This is an unsafe procedure and should not be practiced at this time, and perhaps never.”

As Daley detailed last week in his excellent presentation at Harvard Medical School’s Talks@12 series, the report reignited an ethical debate around tampering with life that’s hummed around genetic and stem cell research for decades. What the Chinese report adds is the theoretical capability of not just changing your genetic makeup, but changing the DNA you pass on to your children.

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Clinical drug trial seeks to avoid liver transplant for LAL deficiency

(Image courtesy Ed Neilan)

neilan_edward_dsc9139Second in a two-part series on metabolic liver disease. Read part 1.

According to the American Liver Foundation, about 1 in 10 Americans have some form of liver disease. One rare, under-recognized disorder, lysosomal acid lipase (LAL) deficiency, can fly under the radar until it becomes life-threatening, often requiring a liver transplant. LAL deficiency currently has no specific treatment, but that may change thanks to combined expertise in genetics, metabolism and hepatology.

In recent years, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Director of Hepatology, Maureen Jonas, MD, and the Metabolism Program’s Edward Neilan, MD, PhD, diagnosed three children with LAL deficiency. All three are now enrolled in the first international LAL deficiency clinical trial, with Neilan serving as Boston Children’s principal investigator.

“LAL deficiency is currently under-diagnosed,” Neilan says. “We think the disease is more common than doctors have thought and now, with a treatment in trial, it is of greater importance to identify those patients so they may have better outcomes.”

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Transplant surgeon seeks to avoid transplants

First in a two-part series on metabolic liver disease. Read part 2.

Khashayar Vakili, MDIn the clinical world, Boston Children’s Hospital surgeon Khashayar Vakili, MD, specializes in liver, kidney and intestinal transplant surgeries, while in the lab he is doing work which, for some patients, could eliminate the need for a transplant surgeon altogether.

Vakili has been working at Boston Children’s for six years. During his transplant surgery fellowship, he spent several months learning about pediatric liver transplantation from Heung Bae Kim, MD, director of the Boston Children’s Pediatric Transplant Center, which prompted his interest in the field.

“When the opportunity to join the transplant team presented itself, I did not hesitate to accept,” he says.

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The diagnostic odyssey: Parents shed light on their experience

the diagnostic journey
Robert Salmon: Storm at sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Nikkola Carmichael, MS, CGC, is a parent and a genetic counselor in the adult genetics clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her research was conducted as part of her master’s degree in genetic counseling in conjunction with colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital.

When a parent or provider first becomes concerned about a child’s development, a diagnostic odyssey begins. It may be brief or can stretch for years as a child undergoes multiple procedures and medical appointments in the search for a diagnosis.

This is a challenging time for families. While learning to address their child’s health needs and fearing for the future, parents may have difficulty accessing support services due to the lack of a diagnosis. Against this backdrop of emotional turmoil, parents strive to support their child through medical procedures that can be painful or frightening.

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Bringing CLARITY to families with undiagnosed disease

sick child-Shutterstock-croppedIn the U.S. alone, an estimated 30 million Americans suffer from a rare disorder. Many of them never receive a diagnosis, and often find themselves on a lonely journey, going from doctor to doctor and test to test, sometimes for many years, with no explanation for their symptoms.

How many people fall in the “undiagnosed” category is unclear, but in its first six years, the NIH’s Undiagnosed Diseases Program has received more than 10,000 inquiries. Without a diagnosis, it’s often difficult to qualify for insurance coverage, receive coordinated care or even connect with a support group.

What if the work of solving these medical mysteries could be crowd-sourced? That’s the goal of CLARITY Undiagnosed, an international challenge launching today in which scientific teams can compete to provide answers for five families with undiagnosed conditions. (Deadline for applications: June 11).

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Advances in SCID (“bubble boy” disease): A Q&A with a child hematologist/oncologist

David Williams, Luigi Notarangelo and Sun-Yung PaiSung-Yun Pai, MD, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, was lead author on two recent articles on severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) in The New England Journal of Medicine. The first reviewed outcomes after bone marrow transplantation; the second reported the first results of a new international gene therapy trial for X-linked SCID. Here, she discusses what’s known to date about these therapies.

Q: What is SCID?

A: SCID is a group of disorders that compromise the blood’s T cells, a key component of the immune system that helps the body fight common viral infections, other opportunistic infections and fungal infections. T-cells are also important for the development of antibody responses to bacteria and other microorganisms. A baby born with SCID appears healthy at birth, but once the maternal antibodies that the baby is born with start to wane, the infant is at risk for life-threatening infections. Unless diagnosed and treated—with a stem cell transplant from a healthy donor or a more experimental therapy like gene therapy—babies with SCID typically die before their first birthday.

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The emerging genetic mosaic of lymphatic and vascular malformations

somatic mosaic mutations vascular anomalies vascular malformations CLOVES Klippel-Trenaunay KTS fibroadipose FAVA lymphatic malformation

Our genes can mutate at any point in our lives. In rare cases, a mutation randomly occurs in a single cell of an embryo and gets carried forward only in the descendants of that particular cell, leaving its mark in some tissues, but not in others. This pattern of mutation, called somatic mosaicsm, can have complicated consequences down the road.

Take CLOVES, a rare syndrome combining vascular, skin, spinal and bone or joint abnormalities described by Ahmad Alomari, MD, co-director of Boston Children’s Hospital Vascular Anomalies Center (VAC). Four years ago, a research team including Alomari and Matthew Warman, MD, discovered that the growths in CLOVES patients had mutations in a growth-regulating gene called PIK3CA. Those mutations, they found, were spread through the affected tissues in a somatic mosaic pattern.

Now it turns out that CLOVES is not alone. In a recent paper in the Journal of Pediatrics, VAC researchers led by Warman proved that three other rare lymphatic and vascular anomalies and overgrowth syndromes often share the same somatic mosaic PIK3CA mutations: Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome (KTS), fibroadipose vascular anomaly (FAVA) and isolated lymphatic malformations.

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Five new developments in hemophilia

Ellis Neufeld hemophiliaEllis Neufeld, MD, PhD, is a hematologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

From new longer-acting drugs to promising gene therapy trials, much is changing in the treatment of hemophilia, the inherited bleeding disorder in which the blood does not clot. Hemophilia Awareness Month comes at a time of both progress and remaining challenges.

1. Many more treatment products are being introduced, including some that last longer.

People with hemophilia lack or have defects in a “factor”—a blood protein that helps normal clots form. Of the approximately 20,000 people with hemophilia in the U.S., about 80 percent have hemophilia A, caused by an abnormally low level of factor VIII, and most of the rest have hemophilia B, caused by abnormally low levels of factor IX. Many patients with severe hemophilia give themselves prophylactic IV infusions of the missing factor to prevent bleeding (which otherwise can lead to crippling joint disease when blood seeps into the joint and enzymes released from blood cells erode the cartilage).

Hemophilia factors traditionally have such a short half-life that we tend to treat patients every other day with factor VIII and twice a week with factor IX. The first two longer-lasting products came onto the market within the past year, and more are on the way. So now, with factor IX, it is possible to get an infusion just once a week and not bleed. This is really changing how we think about the disease. So far, the longer-acting factor VIII products are not yet long-lasting enough to make as dramatic a difference in the frequency of infusions. And creating really long-acting factors remains a challenge.

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The changing nature of what it means to be “diagnosed”

one_red_apple_among_green_rare_disease_shutterstock_254533486

One of a series of posts honoring #RareDiseaseDay (Feb 28, 2015).

Historically, the starting point for making a rare disease diagnosis is the patient’s clinical profile: the set of symptoms and features that together define Diamond Blackfan anemia (DBA), Niemann-Pick disease or any of a thousand other conditions.

For example, anemia and problems absorbing nutrients are features of Pearson marrow pancreas syndrome (PS), whereas oddly shaped fingernails, lacy patterns on the skin and a proneness to cancer point to dyskeratosis congenita (DC).

The resulting diagnoses give the child and family an entry point into a disease community, and is their anchor for understanding what’s happening to them and others: “Yes, my child has that and here’s how it affects her. Does it affect your child this way too?”

But as researchers probe the relationships between genes and their outward expression—between genotype and phenotype—some families are losing that anchor. They may discover that their child doesn’t actually have condition A; rather, genetically they actually have condition B. Or it may be that no diagnosis matches their genetic findings.

What does that mean for patients’ care, and for their sense of who they are? 

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