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.” …
The global theme of this year’s Rare Disease Day (February 28) is research, and in keeping with that, we salute a very important group of people: citizen scientists. These can-do patients and family members are putting previously undiagnosed rare diseases on the map and driving the search for treatments. Citizen scientists play multiple roles: They keep scientists focused on therapeutic development, conduct online research to connect ideas, set up patient networks and data registries, raise money and start companies. They’ve earned a voice in clinical trial design and were instrumental in the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act.
Meet a few citizen scientists who have inspired us recently. …
When I was just 3 months old, I was diagnosed with fibular hemimelia, a rare genetic condition that affects about 1 in 50,000 people. It manifests itself as the lack of the fibula bone, a key structural bone in the lower leg that provides major stability in the ankle and knee.
Fibular hemimelia leads to a severe leg length discrepancy — which, in my case, would have amounted to over 6 inches without treatment. Prior to my time at Boston Children’s Hospital, the go-to cure was amputation — replacing my lower leg with a series of prostheses.
Luckily, at the time of my diagnosis, leg-lengthening surgeries were just being approved in the U.S. My parents couldn’t bear to part with my leg, so over the course of 18 years, I have undergone 13 procedures to combat my leg-length difference, starting at age 5. This early exposure to the medical field, coupled with encouragement from teachers, led to a passion for science. …
Sanfilippo syndrome A is a neurodegenerative condition caused by a genetic error in metabolism: because of a missing enzyme, long-chained sugar molecules cannot be broken down. Toxic substrates accumulate in cells, causing a rapid cognitive decline and, later, motor decline. Most affected children die in their teens or earlier.
There is no treatment, and when Karen Aiach’s daughter Ornella was diagnosed with Sanfilippo syndrome A, no companies were even working on the disease.
When Sarah and Jon Morris’ twins were born nine weeks early, they embarked on a journey largely dictated by their children’s medical needs. While son Drew was thriving, daughter Emma was severely compromised and was transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). “We felt powerless,” remembers Jon. “Every time we thought we had made progress, we had a setback. It’s always two steps forward, one step back in the NICU. That backwards step always hit the hardest.”
After 296 days at Boston Children’s, Emma went home tethered to breathing and feeding tubes. The Morrises had a pulse oximeter at home to regularly test Emma’s blood oxygen level.
There were frustrating limitations to Emma’s oximeter: …
President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, first laid out in his 2015 State of Union Address, aims to develop individualized care that empowers patients and takes into account genetic, environmental and lifestyle differences. Obama is asking Congress for $309 million for the initiative next year.
One big component is the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Million Veteran Program, which has signed up more than 450,000 veterans to date and is now open to active-duty military personnel. Another is NIH support for cancer trials that match treatments with patients’ genomic profiles.
As Might detailed today at a White House summit on the Precision Medicine Initiative, he now has worms at the University of Utah modeling his son’s disease, whose symptoms include seizures, extreme developmental delay and an inability to make tears. He also has a molecular target and a list of 70 compounds that hit it, including 14 that are already approved by the FDA.
Can Might’s vision be scaled and made part of routine medical care, keeping the patient front and center? …
Jason Ayres, a family doctor in Alabama, was speechless as he held his adopted son Patrick’s heart in his hands. Well, a replica of his son’s heart — an exact replica, 3-D printed before the 3-year-old boy had lifesaving open-heart surgery.
In my last post I explained the genetic testing process that led to my daughter Esmé receiving results of two mutations of unknown significance. One, on the gene PCDH19, was discovered in 2012 with the GeneDx infantile epilepsy panel. The other, on SCN8A, was found with whole exome sequencing, also through GeneDx, in 2014.
When we received the SCN8A result, I was fascinated by the notion that it would have been included in our original epilepsy panel had we only waited a handful of months. In fact, in the time since Esmé’s original test in 2012, almost 20 new genes have been added to the GeneDx Infantile Epilepsy panel. …
I think my daughter Esmé is extraordinarily unique—from her tiny pudgy feet that she likes to stuff in her mouth to her beautifully lashed blue eyes and outrageously untamed hair. It’s a mom thing. I guess it is a symptom of loving another person more than life itself.
But my daughter is also unusual in a more scientific way: in her genes.…
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.