Raising awareness about rare diseases

A family tragedy has prompted Kay Parkinson, founder of the rare disease charity Alstrom Syndrome UK, to create a conference encouraging joined-up thinking to help improve treatments, care and services for people with rare diseases. pharmaphorum spoke to her ahead of RAREfest18 to find out more.

On November 30th and December 1st this year, patients, clinicians, scientists and researchers will gather in Cambridge for a unique event: RAREfest18, a conference that aims to bring people together to improve the lives of those living with rare diseases.

Although rare diseases are classed as something that affects less than one in 2,000 people, it’s not that uncommon to have a rare disease. Around one in 17 people are affected by a rare disease, and about 80% of the 6,000 – 8,000 known rare diseases are genetically derived.

That’s why Kay Parkinson, who lost two children to the ultra-rare disease Alstrom Syndrome, is trying to bring influencers together at RAREfest18 – as interactions between people from a range of different backgrounds could prove to be game-changing in the world of rare disease treatments.

In an interview with pharmaphorum, Parkinson gave an example from personal experience – when she was attending a rare disease conference she met the CEO of the Canadian pharma company Prometic.

This chance conversation resulted Prometic trialling its PBI-4050, also used in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and other diseases involving scarring, in Alstrom’s Syndrome.

Encouraging data from a UK-based open-label phase 2 trial of PBI-4050 in Alstrom’s Syndrome were presented at the International Liver Congress, and the European Association for the Study of the Liver, earlier this year.

There is now talk of expanding the trial to other countries, and in order to encourage this kind of lateral thinking, Parkinson launched the first RAREfest in 2015.

Parkinson said: “When I started a charity we were warned off pharma, but they turned into our greatest allies.”

The event has already attracted speakers including the late professor Stephen Hawking who had the rare disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, biotech entrepreneur Dr Andy Richards, and Dr Segolene Ayme, emeritus director of research at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).

The goal for Parkinson is to take people out of their “siloes” and thinking creatively, and to raise awareness about rare diseases among the general public.

She said: “Much of the information and summits are very siloed. You see the same people all the time. We wanted to reach the general public.”

“We felt that there was not a nucleus place for the pharma industry to show what it is achieving, and charities to show what they need.”

Improving awareness

While Parkinson is full of praise for the way pharma has supported rare disease patients, she says that there is a pressing need for more awareness amongst doctors

While specialisation in the medical profession can help with more common diseases, Parkinson says clinicians often struggle to look at patients in a holistic manner and fail to spot that a group of different symptoms are caused by a rare disease.

For example, Alstrom Syndrome is characterised by retinal degeneration, nystagmus (wobbly eyes), sensitivity to light, loss of hearing, obesity and insulin resistance.

But other features may include kidney and liver dysfunction, type 2 diabetes, fatty substances in the blood, poor cardiac function, and bladder and bowel problems.

Symptoms may develop at different stages and not everyone is affected by all of them, and even amongst siblings the symptoms can vary.

It would be easy for a clinician to treat any one of these symptoms – but to look at them together and make a correct diagnosis of Alstrom’s Syndrome is much more challenging.

This proved to be an issue while she was trying to get a diagnosis for her children, Matthew and Charlotte, who sadly died in their twenties as a result of the disease.

Parkinson said: “The individual components were diagnosed. They [clinicians] did not pick up heart disease, nobody put it all together. An eye specialist is not going to look at hearing loss. The whole thinking for rare disease needs to change.”

Patients with rare diseases are more likely to try and interact directly with pharma, or an expert in the field to try and find answers, she added.

“For rare diseases, you can’t pin your hopes on doctors, you pin your hopes on somebody developing something that’s not even there,” said Parkinson.

Rewriting the code

With so many rare diseases caused by faults in the genetic code, there is hope that technology like CRISPR offer the potential to treat the underlying cause of the disease, rewriting a patient’s genetic code to produce a cure.

There are already gene therapies on the market that use different techniques to overcome genetic diseases.

Parkinson hopes that these could lead to treatments for diseases such as Alstrom’s Syndrome but is realistic about the speed of progress.

“I hope it (CRISPR) may become an acceptable treatment. Costs will be involved, and a lot will depend on the funds going into it.”

“There will be lots of barriers to overcome. There are going to be great upsets before there are real breakthroughs. They don’t act like other diseases.”

“We have to remain hopeful as there are so few alternatives, I think huge challenges are still there as when you start intervening in humans it may take time to fully realise the implications.”

In the short term, Parkinson is hoping to drum up support, both financially and from increased awareness, for RAREfest.

While some of the events organised are based on arts and culture, Parkinson hopes they will foster an all-important dialogue between patients, doctors, pharma and wider society to help find new treatments or cures and improve care.

With organisations such as EURORDIS, the European umbrella group for a range of rare disease patient groups, and the Genetic Alliance working in a similar role at a national level in the UK, Parkinson is optimistic that progress will be made.

“Rare diseases are moving up the agenda, at least people are talking about them,” Parkinson said.

About the interviewee

KaKay Parkinson talks about RAREFest18y Parkinson is the CEO at Cambridge Rare Disease Network and founder of the rare disease charity Alstrom Syndrome UK. Kay is also currently director of Alstrom Syndrome Europe.