Stories about: Basil Darras

SPG47: When rare disease research gets a push from parents

SPG47 citizen science
Robbie’s parents are spurring scientific research into her ultra-rare neurodegenerative disorder.

Spastic Paraplegia 47 doesn’t roll off the tongue. The name is complicated and challenging, much like SPG47 itself. When I tell healthcare providers my 3-year-old daughter’s diagnosis, I take a deep breath and wait for the inevitable question: What, exactly, is that?

More than 70 types of Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP) have been identified to date; almost all are neurodegenerative. At best, HSP causes distress and disruption; at worst, it has devastating, potentially life-threatening consequences. Its “pure” form impairs the lower extremities, causing extreme spasticity and weakness. Its “complicated” form — like our daughter Robbie’s — also impacts systemic and/or neurologic function. Many HSP sub-types have been diagnosed in only a handful of people worldwide, leaving affected families feeling lost and disconnected.

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With no time to lose, parents drive CMT4J gene therapy forward

CMT4J
Talia Duff’s disorder, CMT4J, is a rare form of Charcot-Marie-Tooth. It has been modeled in mice that will soon undergo a test of gene therapy, largely through her parents’ behind-the-scenes work.

In honor of Rare Disease Day (Feb. 28), we salute “citizen scientists” Jocelyn and John Duff.

When Talia Duff was born, her parents realized life would be different, but still joyful. They were quickly adopted by the Down syndrome parent community and fell in love with Talia and her bright smile.

But when Talia was about four, it was clear she had a true problem. She started losing strength in her arms and legs. When she got sick, which was often, the weakness seemed to accelerate.

Talia was initially diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own nerve fibers. Treated with IV immunoglobulin infusions to curb the inflammation, she seemed to grow stronger — but only for a time. Adding prednisone, a steroid, seemed to help. But it also caused bone loss, and Talia began having spine fractures.

“We tried a lot of different things, but she never got 100 percent better,” says Regina Laine, NP, who has been following Talia in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neuromuscular Center the past several years, together with Basil Darras, MD.That’s when we decided to readdress the possibility that it was genetic.”

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Antisense drug for spinal muscular atrophy nears the clinic

spinal muscular atrophy Spinraza
Max High of South Carolina was diagnosed with SMA before the age of 1. (Ron Brinson/Flickr)

Update: Nusinersen received FDA approval on December 23, 2016, and will be marketed as Spinraza.

In recent months, two Phase III clinical trials have shown a clear benefit of nusinersen in children with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic motor neuron disease that robs children of muscle control and is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. The ENDEAR trial, involving infants with the more severe SMA Type 1, was first to terminate randomization in August 2016. The CHERISH trial, involving older children with milder Type 2 SMA, was halted on November 8, 2016, because it also met its efficacy target.

Both trials are now open-label, and the FDA has granted nusinersen a priority review. The drug, formerly called SMNRx and now brand-named Spinraza, is an antisense oligonucleotide works by altering gene splicing (see sidebar).

Vector asked Basil Darras, MD, director of the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, to put these developments in perspective. Darras is site principal investigator at Boston Children’s for both trials. The hospital was the first in the world to enroll a child with SMA Type 1 in the ENDEAR study, in 2014.

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Rallying a backup gene could boost strength in spinal muscular atrophy

Vivienne-20150819

Ed note: As of November 2016, Vivienne remains stable. On December 23, 2016, her test drug, to be marketed as SPINRAZA (TM), was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for all forms of SMA.

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a condition affecting one in every 6,000 to 10,000 children, is caused by a defect in a gene called SMN1 — which stands for “survival of motor neuron.” The defect leaves children with too little functioning SMN protein to maintain their motor neurons, which begin wasting away. Muscle strength declines and children eventually develop difficulties eating and breathing.

For Vivienne, whose name means “to live,” that meant being slow to reach motor milestones like crawling, cruising and walking as a toddler. For her parents, it meant hearing that her life expectancy would not be normal.

But a new back-door approach seems to be helping Vivienne, now in first grade, at least thus far.

As it happens, most of us carry a backup gene for SMN1 — namely SMN2.

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