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Seven Questions for a Rare Disease Warrior

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Francis Collins with David Fajgenbaum
Caption: David Fajgenbaum (right) and I pose for a photo a few years ago in Philadelphia.
Credit: National Disease Research Interchange, Philadelphia

Tomorrow is Rare Disease Day at NIH, marking the 12th year that this annual event has been held on the NIH campus. Similar gatherings have been organized independently around the world this week, all to raise awareness for the nearly 7,000 rare diseases, some affecting just a few dozen people. But, collectively, rare diseases are hardly rare. One in 10 Americans has a rare disease (defined as affecting 200,000 or fewer individuals in the US), and about half are children. Without needed treatments, about 30 percent of these children will die by age 5.

To join everyone in raising awareness, I wanted to feature on my blog a unique perspective about rare diseases, and David Fajgenbaum certainly has one. Fajgenbaum is an immunologist and NIH grantee at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. When Fajgenbaum isn’t running studies or clinical trials, he must remain vigilant of his own health. Fajgenbaum has a rare disease called idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease (iMCD), and this devastating condition, which emerged while he was in medical school, nearly claimed his life several times.

Now 34 years old and in a long remission, Fajgenbaum can discuss rare diseases as a doctor, as a patient, as a researcher, and as an advocate. His personal journey, published in his recent book Chasing My Cure, is a gripping read. Fajgenbaum was kind enough to answer a few of my questions on rare diseases and share some of his lessons learned.

The last time that I saw you, David, you looked great. How long have you been in remission?

I have been in remission for 73.83 months. I say 73.83, because I know that I can’t round up—I may relapse tomorrow. But I also refuse to round down because so many colleagues and I have worked so hard for every day of remission for me and other patients with my disease.

For me, every day is particularly special, because I never thought that I would be alive this long. As you know, I became deathly ill during medical school in 2010 and even had my last rites read to me when my doctors didn’t think I would survive. I was eventually diagnosed with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease (iMCD), which is like a deadly cross between cancer and autoimmunity. Chemotherapy saved my life, but I would go on to have four near-death relapses.

After one of those relapses, I got out of the hospital and dedicated my life to conducting iMCD research and co-founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (CDCN). Later, I identified a particular cellular pathway called mTOR that was highly active in my samples. I began testing on myself an mTOR inhibitor [sirolimus]—developed 30 years before and approved for kidney transplantation but never considered for iMCD. It’s this drug that has kept me in remission for the last 73.83 months and helped other people. During this time, I’ve been able to marry my wife, have a daughter, help launch a new center at Penn specializing in rare diseases, and write a book to share my personal journey with others.

As a physician-scientist and as a person with a rare disease, what have you learned about the biomedical research process?

I’ve learned so much, but I’d like to highlight three lessons in particular. First, we must leverage all perspectives to prioritize research and give us the best chance of translating research into meaningful breakthroughs. The traditional approach to rare disease research involves a subset of researchers within a rare disease field submitting their best ideas for funding and a panel selecting the best applicant.

Through the CDCN, we’ve spearheaded a new approach called the Collaborative Network Approach, where we crowdsource research questions from the entire community of patients, physicians, and researchers (not just a subset of researchers) and then recruit the best researchers in the world (not just from within the Castleman disease field) to perform the prioritized studies. We’re now working to improve and spread this approach to other diseases.

Second, collaboration between all players is critical. Patient advocacy groups are uniquely positioned to serve as the glue between all stakeholders. Researchers and physicians need to share ideas, data, and samples with one another. Patients need to be actively involved in research question prioritization and study design. Biopharma and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) need to be engaged early in the process of research discoveries and drug development.

Third, we must leverage all 1,500-plus, existing FDA-approved drugs to help as many patients without any options as quickly as possible. As you know, less than 5 percent of the nearly 7,000 rare diseases have an FDA-approved therapy, but many diseases share similar cellular and genetic defects that could make them susceptible to the same drugs. I’m literally alive today thanks to a drug developed for another disease. How many of the drugs approved for one disease may be effective for many of the 7,000 diseases without any? I don’t know the answer, but I hope we can begin to address this important question and incentivize repurposing.

In your experience, how can people with rare diseases help to advance progress for their conditions?

There is so much work to be done for so many rare diseases. Sometimes it can feel so overwhelming and like “what can I really do?”

But I’ve learned that there are so many ways that we can each contribute and so many incredible examples of advocates who have made a difference for themselves and those that they love. Cystic fibrosis and chordoma are just two of many examples where patient-advocates have been critical partners in transforming their diseases.

People with rare diseases can raise funds for research. Every dollar truly counts. We can work with existing organizations for our disease to ensure that those funds are distributed as efficiently and effectively as possible. If there are major gaps within our rare disease fields that aren’t being addressed by existing organizations, we can start new rare disease organizations (but we should try to avoid this whenever possible). We can contribute samples and data towards research, participate in clinical trials, and share with other patients about our experiences. We can advocate for new drug development and repurposing already-FDA approved drugs for our diseases.

What would you tell other researchers who are studying rare diseases?

I would tell other rare disease researchers that you are doing such important work. You give us hope that a treatment can be identified that will change our lives. It’s an incredible responsibility and incredibly stressful. There are unfortunately far too many scientific questions and diseases with major unmet need for any of us to compete over the use of samples and data. We have to share these within our fields. And we must also work together across rare diseases. We can’t continue to reinvent the wheel; we must share learnings with one another

I enjoyed doing the CastleMan Warrior Flex with you. Tell us more about what it represents?

Doing the CastleMan Warrior Flex with you is one of my favorite pictures. In fact, it’s hanging up in my office.

Castleman disease was named after Dr. Benjamin Castleman, who first described our disease in 1954. We have repurposed the “Castleman” name to be a “CastleMan Warrior” (below is our cartoon mascot). We do the “CastleMan Warrior” Flex to raise awareness for Castleman disease and rare diseases generally—we’re all warriors in the rare disease space.

CastleMan Warrior Flex
Credit: David Fejgenbaum/National Disease Research Interchange, Philadelphia

What are your future plans as a rare disease advocate and as a researcher?

We’ve made a lot of progress for Castleman disease: we’ve advanced our findings about mTOR towards a clinical trial, gained approval for the treatment siltuximab for iMCD, developed diagnostic criteria and treatment guidelines, and invested about $1.5 million into Castleman disease research, which has led to over $7 million in additional funding from other sources.

But we still have important work ahead of us. The treatments sirolimus and siltuximab work for only a portion of all iMCD patients. We need to identify more effective treatments for all forms of Castleman disease.

I will continue to study Castleman disease and other diseases at the intersection of autoimmunity and oncology to gain insights into how the immune system works in myriad diseases. In parallel, I will continue to advocate for the adoption of the “Collaborative Network Approach” to crowdsource all stakeholder perspectives as well as for new models for drug repurposing.

Any other issues that you’d like to address?

I feel a responsibility to share with the world the lessons that I’ve learned about life from nearly dying five times. This is a major reason that I wrote my book.

One lesson that I think about a lot is related to my growing up playing football. Some of my games were extended into an overtime period to decide the outcome. In overtime, every second counts and you’re totally focused on what’s important. I’ve lived with that exact same feeling ever since I had my last rites read to me.

I’ve also learned that humor can be incredibly powerful. You may think that a good laugh may be the last thing that you’d want to do when you’re dying in the ICU. But laughing with the people that I love actually helped me feel like I could transcend my illness, and it helped to connect us.

My greatest regrets on my deathbed were not things that I had done or said. I regretted what I didn’t do or didn’t say and that I would no longer be able to do. I now follow the motto: “Think It, Do It.” In other words, we should reflect on what we’re hoping for and then turn our hopes into action.

Finally, I’ve learned that it really takes a strong team to make a difference in the world, especially against diseases. If it was just me on my own, we would have made less than 1 percent of the progress that’s been achieved. I hope that all rare disease warriors will join together into strong teams, armies even, and make a difference in the world.

Links:

Multicentric Castleman Disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/NIH)

Castleman Disease Collaborative Network (Paso Robles, CA)

His Doctors Were Stumped. Then He Took Over (New York Times, February 4, 2017)

Video: Chasing My Cure: Dr. David Fajgenbaum’s Lessons From His Rare Disease And On Finding Cures For Others (Exponential Medicine, November 4, 2019)

Rare Disease Day at NIH 2020 (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)


Pursuing Precision Medicine for Chronic Kidney Disease

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Section of glomerular filters

Caption: Scanning electron micrograph showing a part of one of the kidney’s glomerular filters, which are damaged in people with chronic kidney disease (CKD). The cells with the lacy cytoplasmic extensions are called podocytes.
Credit: Kretzler Lab, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor

Every day, our kidneys filter more than 30 gallons of blood to allow excretion of molecules that can harm us if they build up as waste. But, for more than 20 million Americans and a growing number of people around the world, this important function is compromised by chronic kidney disease (CKD) [1]. Some CKD patients are at high risk of progressing to actual kidney failure, treatable only by dialysis or kidney transplants, while others remain generally healthy with stable kidney function for many years with minimal treatment.

The dilemma is that, even when CKD is diagnosed early, there’s been no good way to predict which individuals are at high risk for rapid progression. Those individuals would potentially benefit from more intensive measures to slow or prevent kidney failure, such as drug regimens that tightly control blood pressure and/or blood glucose. So, I’m pleased to report that NIH-funded researchers have made some progress toward developing more precise strategies for identifying individuals at high risk for kidney failure. In recent findings published in Science Translational Medicine [2], an international research team has identified a protein, easily detectable in urine, which appears to serve as an early warning sign of CKD progression.

A wide range of conditions, from diabetes to hypertension to the autoimmune disease lupus, can contribute to the gradual loss of kidney function seen in people with CKD. But research suggests that once kidney damage reaches a critical threshold, it veers off to follow a common downhill course, driven by shared cell signaling pathways and almost independent of the conditions causing it. If there was an easy, reliable way to determine when a CKD patient’s kidneys are approaching this threshold, it could open the door to better strategies for protecting them from kidney failure.

With this need in mind, a team, led by Matthias Kretzler and Wenjun Ju of the University of Michigan, began analyzing gene activity in kidney biopsy samples donated by 164 CKD patients and stored in the European Renal cDNA Bank. Specifically, the researchers looked for patterns of gene activity that corresponded with the patients’ estimated glomerular filtration rates, an indicator of renal function frequently calculated as part of a routine blood workup. Their first pass produced a list of 72 genes that displayed varying levels of activity that corresponded to differences in the patients’ estimated glomerular filtration rates. Importantly, the activity of many of those genes is also increased in cell signaling pathways thought to drive CKD progression.

Further study in two more groups of CKD patients, one from the United States and another from Europe, whittled the list down to three genes that best predicted kidney function. The researchers then zeroed in on the gene that codes for epidermal growth factor (EGF), a protein that, within the kidney, seems to be produced specifically in tubules, which are key components of the waste filtration system. Because EGF appears to enhance tubular repair after injury, researchers had a hunch that it might serve as a positive biomarker of tubular function that could be combined with existing tests of glomerular filtration to detect progression of CKD at an earlier stage.

In groups of CKD patients from the United States and China, the researchers went on to find that the amount of EGF in the urine provides an accurate measure of the protein’s activity in the kidney, making it a promising candidate for a simple urine test. In fact, CKD patients with low levels of EGF in their urine were four times more likely than those with higher EGF levels to have their kidney function worsen within a few years.

These lines of evidence suggest that, if these findings are replicated in additional studies, it may be possible to develop a simple EGF urine test to help identify which individuals with CKD would benefit the most from aggressive disease management and clinical follow-up. Researchers also plan to explore the possibility that such a urine test might prove useful in the early diagnosis of CKD, before there are any other indications of kidney disease. These are very promising new findings, but much remains to be done before we can think of applying these results as standard of care in the clinic. For example, the EGF work needs to be replicated in larger groups of CKD patients, as well as CKD patients with diabetes.

Beyond their implications for CKD, these results demonstrate the power of identifying new biologically important indicators directly from patients and then testing them in large, diverse cohorts of people. I look forward to the day when these sorts of studies will become possible on an even larger scale through our U.S. Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort.

References:

[1] National Chronic Kidney Disease Fact Sheet, 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Tissue transcriptome-driven identification of epidermal growth factor as a chronic kidney disease biomarker. Ju W, Nair V, Smith S, Zhu L, Shedden K, Song PX, Mariani LH, Eichinger FH, Berthier CC, Randolph A, Lai JY, Zhou Y, Hawkins JJ, Bitzer M, Sampson MG, Thier M, Solier C, Duran-Pacheco GC, Duchateau-Nguyen G, Essioux L, Schott B, Formentini I, Magnone MC, Bobadilla M, Cohen CD, Bagnasco SM, Barisoni L, Lv J, Zhang H, Wang HY, Brosius FC, Gadegbeku CA, Kretzler M; ERCB, C-PROBE, NEPTUNE, and PKU-IgAN Consortium. Sci Transl Med. 2015 Dec 2;7(316):316ra193.

Links:

Chronic Kidney Disease: What Does it Mean to Me? (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Personalized Molecular Nephrology Research Laboratory (University of Michigan)

C-Probe (University of Michigan)

Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program (NIH)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases