Huntington’s Disease: The New Gene Therapy That Sufferers Cannot Afford
Published May 16, 2016
As the small motorboat chugs to a halt, three travellers, wind-beaten from the three-hour journey along the Atrato river, step on to the muddy banks of Bellavista, an otherwise inaccessible town in the heart of the heavily forested north-west of Colombia. They swing their hessian bags—stuffed with bedsheets, dried beans and cuddly toys—to their shoulders and clamber up a dusty path. Tucked inside the bag of one of the travellers, neuropsychologist Sonia Moreno, is the reason they are here: a wad of unfinished, hand-drawn charts of family trees.
The people whose names are circled on the charts have Huntington’s disease, an incurable genetic brain disorder that usually starts between the ages of 35 and 45 years. It begins with personality changes that can make them aggressive, violent, uninhibited, anxious and depressed. The disease progresses slowly, robbing them first of the control of their body, which jerks and twists seemingly of its own will, and then their ability to walk, talk and think until, about 20 years after the symptoms first begin, they die. Their children, each of whom has a 50% chance of inheriting the disease, watch and wait to see if it will happen to them. It is in this way that the disease strangles families.
With Moreno is Ignacio Muñoz-Sanjuan, vice president of translational biology at CHDI Foundation, a US nonprofit research organisation that aims to find ways to prevent or slow down the progression of the disease. The foundation spent $140m–$150m (£97m-£104m) on research last year, but Muñoz-Sanjuan is not here on official business. He’s here for Factor-H, an initiative he founded four years ago to help with the other end of the problem—poor families with Huntington’s struggling in Latin America.
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