Joni Rutter, Ph.D., National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
Most public health challenges may seem obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, swept the globe and in some way touched the lives of everyone. But not all public health challenges are as readily apparent.
Rare diseases are a case in point. While individually each disease is rare, collectively rare diseases are common: More than 10,000 rare diseases affect nearly 400 million people worldwide. In the United States, the prevalence of rare diseases (over 30 million people) rivals or exceeds that of common diseases such as diabetes (37.3 million people), Alzheimer’s disease (6.5 million people), and heart failure (6.2 million people).
Shouldering the Burden of Rare Diseases
As with common diseases, the personal and economic burdens of rare diseases are immense. People who live with rare diseases often struggle for years before they receive an accurate diagnosis, with some remaining undiagnosed for a decade or longer. The diagnostic odyssey includes countless doctor visits, unnecessary tests and procedures, and wrong diagnoses. For people in rural and low-income communities, lack of access to care is an additional barrier to an accurate diagnosis. And a diagnosis often doesn’t lead to better health—only about 5 percent of rare diseases have U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved treatments.
Collectively, the personal burdens of those with rare diseases impose a significant economic cost on the nation. When quantifying the health care expenses for people with rare diseases, we found that they have three to five times greater costs than those without rare diseases . In the United States, the total direct medical costs for those with rare diseases is approximately $400 billion annually, a figure validated independently by the EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases. The EveryLife study also included indirect and non-medical costs, resulting in a higher total economic burden of nearly $1 trillion annually .
What’s even starker is that the true scope and impact of rare diseases actually may be greater because rare diseases aren’t easily visible in our health care system. Many of the diseases are too rare to have a code that identifies them in the electronic health record (EHR).
Speeding Up the Search for Solutions
Each and every day, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) works with patients, advocates, clinicians, and researchers to meet the public health challenge of rare diseases. Driving those conversations are three overarching goals to help people living with rare diseases get the high-quality care they need, faster:
1. Shorten the duration of the diagnostic odyssey by more than half. The diagnostic odyssey for someone with a rare disease takes on average seven years, and there are several ways we can speed the journey. For example, we are designing computational tools to detect rare genetic disorders from EHR data. This work is part of a broader research effort focused on using genetic analysis and machine learning to make it easier for health care providers to diagnose people with rare diseases correctly. Also, connecting patients more quickly with each other and the research community can hasten the search for answers. Check out the resources below to learn about rare diseases, find patient support organizations, and get involved in research efforts.
2. Develop treatments for more than one rare disease at a time. A key strategy is leveraging what rare diseases have in common. Some of our efforts build upon the fact that 80–85 percent of rare diseases are genetic. We can use this knowledge to develop genetic and molecular interventions for groups of rare diseases. Two programs—the Platform Vector Gene Therapy pilot project and the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium, which is part of the public-private Accelerating Medicines Partnership®—are streamlining the gene therapy development process. Their ultimate goal is to make gene therapies more accessible to many people with rare diseases. We also have joined in to advance the clinical application of genome editing for rare genetic diseases.
The NCATS-led Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, which is supported across NIH, brings scientists together with rare disease organizations and patient advocacy groups to better understand common characteristics, which also might speed clinical research. With this in mind, we are adapting a clinical trial strategy used in cancer research to test a single therapy on multiple rare diseases.
3. Make it easier and more efficient for scientists to discover and develop treatments for rare diseases. NCATS develops ways for new treatments to reach people more quickly. Repurposing drugs, for example, is revealing already-approved drugs that may work for rare diseases. Programs such as Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases and Bridging Interventional Development Gaps move basic research discoveries in the lab closer to becoming new drugs. Ambitious initiatives, such as the Biomedical Data Translator, unite data from biomedical research, clinical trials, and EHRs to find treatments for rare diseases faster.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us the power of working together to solve public health challenges. Let’s now come together to address the public health challenge of rare diseases. If you want to get involved, please join us at Rare Disease Day at NIH 2023 on February 28. You’ll hear personal stories, learn about the latest research, and discover helpful resources. I hope to see you there!
 The IDeaS initiative: pilot study to assess the impact of rare diseases on patients and healthcare systems. Tisdale A, Cutillo CM, Nathan R, Russo P, Laraway B, Haendel M, Nowak D, Hasche C, Chan CH, Griese E, Dawkins H, Shukla O, Pearce DA, Rutter JL, Pariser AR. Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. 2021 Oct 22; ;16(1):429.
 The national economic burden of rare disease in the United States in 2019. Yang G, Cintina I, Pariser A, Oehrlein E, Sullivan J, Kennedy A. Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. 2022 Apr 12;17(1):163.
Rare Disease Day at NIH 2023 (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
Rare Diseases Registry Program (NCATS)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 23rd in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
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Tags: Accelerating Medicines Partnership, AMP, Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium, Biomedical Data Translator, Bridging Interventional Development Gaps, drug repurposing, EHR, electronic health records, EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases, gene therapy, genetic diseases, genome editing, NCATS, Platform Vector Gene Therapy, Rare Disease Day, Rare Disease Day at NIH 2023, rare diseases, Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases