Stories about: Rare Disease Day

Patients’ brain tissue unlocks the cellular hideout of Sturge-Weber’s gene mutation

A diagram of the skull and brain showing the leptomeninges, which is affected by Sturge-Weber syndrome
Sturge-Weber syndrome causes capillary malformations in the brain. They occur in the brain’s leptomeninges, which comprise the arachnoid mater and pia mater.

A person born with a port-wine birthmark on his or her face and eyelid(s) has an 8 to 15 percent chance of being diagnosed with Sturge-Weber syndrome. The rare disorder causes malformations in certain regions of the body’s capillaries (small blood vessels). Port-wine birthmarks appear on areas of the face affected by these capillary malformations.

Aside from the visible symptoms of Sturge-Weber, there are also some more subtle and worrisome ones. Sturge-Weber syndrome can be detected by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Such images can reveal a telltale series of malformed capillaries in regions of the brain. Brain capillary malformations can have potentially devastating neurological consequences, including epileptic seizures.

Frustratingly, since doctors first described Sturge-Weber syndrome over 100 years ago, the relationship between brain capillary malformations and seizures has remained somewhat unexplained. In 2013, a Johns Hopkins University team found a GNAQ R183Q gene mutation in about 90 percent of sampled Sturge-Weber patients. However, the mutation’s effect on particular cells and its relationship to seizures still remained unknown.

But recently, some new light has been shed on the mystery. At Boston Children’s Hospital, Sturge-Weber patients donated their brain tissue to research after it was removed during a drastic surgery to treat severe epilepsy. An analysis of their tissue, funded by Boston Children’s Translational Neuroscience Center (TNC), has revealed the cellular location of the Sturge-Weber mutation. The discovery brings new hope of finding ways to improve the lives of those with the disorder.

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

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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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