Stories about: Orphan diseases

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 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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Can rare disease genes be protective?

Carriers of the rare disease Niemann-Pick C1 may be protected against Ebola.
Carriers of the rare disease Niemann-Pick C1 may be protected against Ebola.
First of several posts to commemorate (Feb 28, 2015).

Evolution is a strange thing: sometimes it favors keeping a mutation in the gene pool, even when a double dose of it is harmful—even fatal. Why? Because a single copy of that mutation is protective in certain situations.

A classic example is the sickle-cell mutation: People carrying a single copy don’t develop sickle cell disease, but they make enough sickled red blood cells to keep the malaria parasite from getting a toe-hold. (Certain other genetic disorders affecting red blood cells have a similar effect.)

Or consider cystic fibrosis. Carriers of mutations in the CFTR gene—some 1 in 25 people of European ancestry—appear to be protected from typhoid fever, cholera and possibly tuberculosis.

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The Precision Medicine Initiative: A child-centered perspective

child aiming bow & arrow Shutterstock croppedPatrice Milos, PhD, is president and CEO of Claritas Genomics, a CLIA-certified genetic diagnostic testing company spun off from Boston Children’s Hospital in 2013.

A child is sick, showing symptoms her parents cannot identify. Something is seriously wrong, but what? The family turns to Boston Children’s Hospital for answers. Yet, even with today’s medical advances, a precise diagnosis often remains elusive.

The Human Genome Project has sparked innovation over the last 14 years, and as President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative asserts, today genome science offers patients new hope for answers.

Initially, cancer will be the major medical focus of this initiative, as cancer is a genetic disease—a genomic alternation of the patient’s normal tissue DNA.

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A link between cystic fibrosis and arsenic poisoning?

boys playing in arsenic-endemic area of Bangladesh

Since its causative gene was sequenced in the 1980s, cystic fibrosis (CF) has been the “textbook” genetic disease. Several thousand mutations have been identified in the CFTR protein, which regulates the flow of chloride in and out of cells. When CFTR is lost or abnormal, thick mucus builds up, impairing patients’ lungs, liver, pancreas, and digestive and reproductive systems, and making their lungs prone to opportunistic infections.

But new research could add a chapter to the textbook, pinpointing an unexpected environmental cause of CF-like illness. A study reported in the February 5 New England Journal of Medicine found that people with arsenic poisoning have high chloride levels in their sweat—the classic diagnostic sign of CF.

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Advancing clinical trials for Niemann-Pick type C: Sweet news for cyclodextrin

cyclodextrin Febreze Niemann-Pick type cOlaf Bodamer, MD, PhD, is associate chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital and is launching a multidisciplinary clinic this spring for lysosomal storage diseases—including Niemann-Pick type C, sometimes referred to as “childhood Alzheimer’s.”

Niemann-Pick disease type C (NP-C) has come a long way since its first description as an entity in the 1960s. Part of a group of rare metabolic disorders known as lysosomal storage diseases, NP-C leaves children unable to break down cholesterol and other lipid molecules. These molecules accumulate in the liver, spleen and brain, causing progressive neurologic deterioration.

I still vividly remember when I diagnosed my first patient with this devastating disease, a 3-year-old boy who had global developmental delay, restricted eye movement, loss of motor coordination and loss of speech. I spent hours with the family, explaining what was known about NP-C. When faced with the question about treatability and outcome, I could barely find the right words, but had to acknowledge that the outcome was inevitably fatal and that there was no specific treatment other than supportive measures to treat his symptoms.

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