Living with a Disease Unknown to Science

Imagine that you have a newborn child and nothing seems right. Your child cannot stay still and is in constant distress. Every attempt that you make to calm your child only heightens the distress. At first, doctors say that there is nothing to worry about, that your child will grow out of it. Finally, after six months, they acknowledge that something is wrong, only to tell you that they do not know what is wrong. The disease is unknown to science.

These were the first six months of Bertrand Might’s life, as told in the New Yorker’s, One of a Kind, an article about the Might family’s quest for their son’s diagnosis. The quest took 3 years and involved several wrong diagnoses, including a false death sentence, flights across the country, and general uncertainty about their son, their unborn daughter, and own lives. They felt that they had their “child hot-potatoed back and forth, nothing getting done, nothing being found out, nobody even telling [them] what the next step should be.” Finally, a Duke sequencing study confirmed that a mutation in Bertrand’s NGLY1 gene had caused the disease, making him the first patient ever diagnosed with NGLY1 deficiency.

Now they faced a different problem: n=1. Bertrand was the only child with this disease. If there are no other patients suffering, there are no advocacy groups to fund research, no government grants, no incentive for drug development. “It’s not actionable,” doctors said. There is nothing that you can do.

The Mights took action. Matt, a computer scientist, used his knowledge of search optimization and reputation in the internet community to design a viral blog post. He engineered “Hunting down my son’s killer” to show at the top of searches that parents in his situation might have made. Half an hour after publishing, people started sharing the story all over Twitter and by the end of the day it was the top story on Reddit. The post had gone viral.

A week later, the post reached a geneticist in Turkey, who had just sequenced two patients with NGLY1. The progress continued to snowball. Matt Wilsey, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose daughter had NGLY1 deficiency, read the post and connected with the Mights. A community had formed. Advocacy groups were set up. Scientists began sharing data. Treatment candidates were discovered. While there is still progress to be made, they faced a “non actionable” situation for an “n of 1” disease, took action and found hope as a community.

This story illustrates the power of the crowd to make a difference in the lives of children who otherwise do not have hope. Our social networks have vast reach, and simply sharing a message can help immensely, as seen saw in the story of NGLY1. Together, we can transform these “n of 1” diseases into productive communities for raising awareness, funding research, discovering treatments, and giving hope.

Links: Matt’s original article (link), the New Yorker piece (link), and a video of Matt talking about how sharing on the internet has helped the NGLY1 children (link)

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