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Glenn Nichols, surrounded by his hospice team. The author is in yellow.

Genetic Linkage

When Celebrities Suddenly Care About Rare Diseases

June 17, 2015

Tags: Batten disease, Charlotte and Gwenyth Gray, Taylor's Tale, Laura King Edwards

Sharon King, Laura King Edwards, and Taylor King -- and Hannah Montana
I have followed, in awe, the tireless efforts of families that have rare genetic diseases to raise awareness and funds.

Bake sales and bike races, balls and raffles, exhausting and all-consuming. But these efforts pale when a performer or other famous rich person suddenly and explosively steps up to support such a disease, solely because someone they know has just been diagnosed. As if dozens of families haven’t already been trying to fund clinical trials for years. Last summer’s "ice bucket challenge" was the epitome of the power of viral social media, with the message about ALS lost in the excitement.

When celebrities suddenly care about rare diseases, I wonder what my friends in the rare disease community think. They’re happy, of course, at the attention, yet perhaps a bit unglued by the power of the famous – but maybe afraid to say so.

That happened recently for Batten disease, a devastating group of brain disorders that strike in childhood. One family isn’t afraid to speak out.

Two years ago my blog DNA Science gave a voice to Laura King Edwards, who has been running races in all 50 states in honor of her 16-year-old sister Taylor, who has Batten disease. Laura updated a year ago.

This year, she and her mother Sharon King share their thoughts about last week’s avalanche of concern for the disease that is taking Taylor away. (more…)

No Ice Buckets or Pink Ribbons for Very Rare Genetic Diseases

October 10, 2014

Tags: rare diseases, ice bucket challenge, Leber congenital amaurosis, Batten disease, giant axonal neuropathy, juvenile Huntington disease, ALS, breast cancer

As enthusiasm for dumping ice on one another fades with autumn and October brings pervasive pink, I wish that attention would turn to families confronting diseases not as well known as ALS and breast cancer.

HOW RARE IS RARE?
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, “rare disease” in the U.S. means affecting fewer than 200,000 people. These conditions number about 6,800, collectively affecting nearly 30 million Americans or 1 in 10 people. Many are single-gene diseases. That means that the chance of more than one family member being affected is quite high (see Mendel's first law). Unlike those, most (>90%) cases of ALS and breast cancer aren’t inherited as single-gene traits, but are sporadic. Mutations happen during a person’s lifetime in somatic cells, perhaps due to an environmental trigger. A family with one member who has ALS wouldn't have as great a chance as it affecting another as a family with Huntington disease, for example.

With so many causes of rare diseases, comparing statistics is an apples-and-oranges exercise. But I collected a few anyway, for prevalence (the percentage of a population with a particular disease at a given time). (more…)

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