Stories about: rare disease

The 21st Century Cures Act: Addressing unmet needs in children with rare disease

21st Century Cures Act and children
Among its other provisions, the Cures Act would advance implementation of the 2013 National Pediatric Research Network Act, boosting therapeutic development for rare childhood diseases.

Medical solutions often require countless hours of investigation, months of testing and monitoring, years of post-trial and market analysis and billions of dollars of investment — with no certainty of success.

Last year, after years of groundwork, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Cures Act. A companion measure is being developed in the Senate, and stakeholders are optimistic that agreement on a package — even a slimmed down bill — could happen this year.

While Congress has addressed research and medical product regulatory needs before, the Cures Act has been unique in its comprehensive approach, looking at all elements of the research spectrum — from basic discovery science to translational research to regulatory review. It would upgrade the National Institutes of Health’s research capabilities and update the Food and Drug Administration’s approval policies to get new drugs and devices to the clinic sooner.

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Citizen science: Genetic bone disease fuels a teen’s passion for research

citizen science

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.

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Citizen science: Giving patients a voice in drug development

citizen science patient voice drug development

There’s a natural tension between wanting the FDA to ensure safety and efficacy before a drug enters the market and wanting to speed up what many view as a glacially slow approval process. The rare disease community tends to fall in the second camp, and has become increasingly vocal in calling for more clinical trials, more flexibility in their design and redefinition of what constitutes a benefit.

ALS advocates, for example, have called for a parallel track, “in which FDA provides an early approval based on limited data, and then continues the learning process in a confirmatory clinical trial and if needed, patient registries to collect additional data from patients receiving the drug outside the clinical trial…”

Recent legislation is encouraging patient engagement in drug development, especially for conditions with profound unmet medical needs. In its 2012 iteration, the Prescription Drug User Fees Act (PDUFA) introduced public meetings to get input from the patient community, captured in a series of informative white papers.

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Hunting rare cancers to ground

rare cancers
(UGREEN 3S / Shutterstock)

As we’ve seen this week on Vector, some rare childhood cancers such as medulloblastoma and neuroblastoma are starting to give up their molecular secrets, raising the possibility (and in medulloblastoma’s case, the reality) of precision treatments. Many cancers, though, are so rare that there aren’t even cell lines in which to study them. Yet they could hold important insights. The first tumor suppressor gene, Rb, was discovered in retinoblastoma, a cancer affecting a mere 500 U.S. children each year.

Doctors often have no clear consensus for diagnosing and treating rare cancers, and outcomes tend to be poor in both children and adults. Andrew Hong, MD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Broad Institute’s Cancer Program and a pediatric oncologist at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, is part of a research team that wants to fix that.

Armed with recent advances in culture technology, the scientists aim to engineer cell lines for as many rare cancers as they can get samples for — and then interrogate them for therapeutic targets. A proof-of-concept published in Nature Communications last month finds a lot of potential in their approach. Read more on Broad Minded, the Broad Institute’s science blog.

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Mom-entrepreneur forms gene therapy company to tackle Sanfilippo syndrome

Karen and Ornella Aiach Sanfilippo gene therapy

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.

As a mother, Aiach could not accept that.

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Expectation vs. reality: Rare disease parents’ mixed feelings about genetic research results

rare disease genetic resultsTypically, when you enroll in a study, it’s not with the expectation that you will receive results. In genomics studies, it’s becoming common to give families the option to get individual results — the newborn sequencing study, Baby Seq, is just one example — as an incentive to participate. Families of children with rare disease, especially undiagnosed illnesses, need no incentive: they’re desperate for answers.

But how do families actually feel once they get genetic results? We conducted interviews with nine rare disease parents (six mothers, three fathers) whose children were enrolled at the hospital’s Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research. What we found is more complexity than we expected.

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Short telomeres, myriad diseases: The complex mystery of dyskeratosis congenita

dyskeratosis congenita
The chromosome tips known as telomeres can be compromised by many different mutations — with many different effects. (vitstudio/Shutterstock)

Genetic diseases largely fall into two overarching camps. You have simple, single-gene alterations that produce a single, recognizable disease. And you have conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, where many variations in many genes all make small contributions that fuel the illness.

Dyskeratosis congenita (DC) doesn’t fit either profile. While this rare genetic condition manifests in certain predictable ways (bone marrow failure among the most common), there is huge variability between patients. Yet genetics has revealed one common thread: the molecular caps that protect the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres, are shortened in DC patients. This results in cells that age too quickly.

From there things get complicated, because problems with any of 11 different genes can trigger short telomeres in DC. And DC, it appears, is only the beginning.

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Rare diseases: tools, lessons, discovery

rare diseases toolsWhen rare diseases are taken together, they’re not all that rare. Their underlying genes provide biological insights that drive therapeutic advances and often shed light on more common disorders. Thanks to advances in genomics and bioinformatics, growing interest from pharma and a burgeoning citizen science movement, rare disease is poised to rock biomedicine. This Storify recaps a Twitter chat hosted by the NIH (#NIHchat) ahead of Rare Disease Day on February 29. People shared statistics, great examples of rare disease science, directories of diseases/disease organizations and tools for patients, clinicians and researchers.

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Nephrotic syndrome: Unexpected insights from genomic sequencing

nephrotic syndrome - SNRS -a glomerulus
Magnified views of a glomerulus from a rat kidney. (Source for all images: Braun DA; et al. Nat Genet 2015 doi:10.1038/ng.3512)

About 1 in 5 cases of the kidney-destroying condition nephrotic syndrome don’t respond to steroid treatment. They are a leading cause of end-stage kidney failure in children and young adults, who are quickly forced to go on dialysis or wait for a kidney transplant.

Thanks in large part to the lab of Friedhelm Hildebrandt, MD, chief of the Division of Nephrology at Boston Children’s Hospital, more is becoming known about this severe condition. Mutations in more than 30 genes have been implicated, all causing dysfunction of glomeruli, the kidney’s filtering units, specifically in cells known as podocytes. Test panels are now clinically available. Yet, in 70 percent of patients, the causative gene is still unknown.

A new study by Hildebrandt and colleagues in this week’s Nature Genetics pinpoints three new, completely unexpected genes, revealing the power of whole-genome sequencing and potentially opening a new treatment route for at least some steroid-resistant cases.

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CDKL5: Understanding rare epilepsies, patient by patient, neuron by neuron

CDKL5 epilepsy
Haley with her parents and neurologist Heather Olson (right)

Nine-year-old Haley Hilt has had intractable seizures all her life. Though she cannot speak, she communicates volumes with her eyes. Using a tablet she controls with her gaze, she can tell her parents when her head hurts and has shown that she knows her letters, numbers and shapes.

Haley is one of a growing group of children who are advancing the science around CDKL5 epilepsy, Haley’s newly recognized genetic disorder. When Boston Children’s Hospital geneticist Joan Stoler, MD, diagnosed Haley in 2009, there were perhaps 100 cases known in the world; today, there are estimated to be a few thousand. Haley’s neurologist, Heather Olson, MD, leads a CDKL5 Center of Excellence at the hospital that is bringing the condition into better view.

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