A Tribute to Huntington’s Disease Warriors in the Age of COVID-19

Frances Saldana is one of the most remarkable women I know. She has lost all three of her children to Huntington’s disease (HD) – a nasty, fatal disease that steadily destroys the nerve cells in the brain – but still retains a fighting spirit and a commitment to finding a cure for HD. She is the President Emeritus for HD-Care, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about HD, and finding money for research to cure it. She recently wrote a Mother’s Day blog for HD-Care about the similarities between HD and COVID-19. As May is National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month we wanted to share her blog with you.

Frances Saldana

COVID-19 has consumed our entire lives, and for many, our livelihoods.  This is a pandemic like we have never experienced in our lifetime, bringing out in many families fear, financial devastation, disabilities, isolation, suffering, and worst of all, loss of life.  But through all this, the pandemic has uncovered emotions in many who rose to the occasion – a fight and stamina beyond human belief.

As a family member who has lost all of my children to Huntington’s disease, it makes me so sad to watch and hear about the suffering that people all over the world are currently experiencing with COVID-19.  This devastation is nothing new to Huntington’s disease families.  Although Huntington’s disease (HD) is not contagious, it is genetic, and much of the uncertainty and fears that families are experiencing are so similar to what HD families experience….in slow motion, with unanswered questions such as:  

  • Who in my family is carrying the mutant HD gene?  (Who in my family is carrying the coronavirus?)
  • Who in my family will inherit the mutant HD gene? (Who will get infected by the COVID-19?)
  • Will my loved on live long enough to benefit from a treatment for HD? (Will there be a vaccination soon if my loved one is infected by COVID-19?) 
  • How long will my HD family member live?  (Will my affected COVID-19 loved one survive after being placed on a ventilator?)
  • Is my HD family member going to die?  (Will my COVID-19 family member die?)

In watching some of the footage of COVID-19 patients on TV and learning about the symptoms, it appears that those with a severe case of the virus go through similar symptoms as HD patients who are in the late and end-of-life stages:  pneumonia, sepsis, pain, and suffering, to name a few, although for HD families, the journey goes on for years or even decades, and then carries on to the next generation, and not one HD patient will survive the disease. Not yet!

Scientists are working furiously all over the world to find a treatment for COVID-19.  The same goes for scientists focused on Huntington’s disease research.  Without their brilliant work we would have no hope.  Without funding there would be no science.  I have been saying for the last 20 years that we will have a treatment for Huntington’s disease in the next couple of years, but with actual facts and successful clinical trials, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel and we have much to be thankful for.  I feel it in my heart that a treatment will be found for both COVID-19 and Huntington’s disease very soon.    

The month of May happens to be National Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month.  Mother’s Day also falls in the month of May.  Huntington’s disease “Warrior Moms” are exemplary women, and I have been blessed to have known a few.  Driven by love for their children, they’ve worn many hats as caregivers, volunteers, and HD community leaders in organizations such as HD-CARE, HDSA, WeHaveAFace, Help4HD, HD Support &Care Network, and many others. 

The mothers have often also been forced to take on the role of breadwinners when the father of the family has unexpectedly become debilitated from HD.   In spite of carrying a heavy cross, HD Warrior Moms persevere, and they do it with endless love, often taking care of HD family members from one generation to the next.  They are the front-line workers in the HD community, tirelessly protecting their families and at the same time doing all they can to provide a meaningful quality of life. 

Many HD Warrior moms have lost their children in spite of their fierce fight to save them, but they keep their memory alive, never losing hope for a treatment that will end the pain, suffering, and loss of life. Many HD Warrior Moms have lost the fight themselves, not from HD, but from a broken heart. These are the HD Warrior Moms.

We salute them all. We love them all.

CIRM is funding several projects targeting HD. You can read about them here.

Rare Disease Gets Big Boost from California’s Stem Cell Agency

UC Irvine’s Dr. Leslie Thompson and patient advocate Frances Saldana after the CIRM Board vote to approve funding for Huntington’s disease

If you were looking for a poster child for an unmet medical need Huntington’s disease (HD) would be high on the list. It’s a devastating disease that attacks the brain, steadily destroying the ability to control body movement and speech. It impairs thinking and often leads to dementia. It’s always fatal and there are no treatments that can stop or reverse the course of the disease. Today the Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) voted to support a project that shows promise in changing that.

The Board voted to approve $6 million to enable Dr. Leslie Thompson and her team at the University of California, Irvine to do the late stage testing needed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to start a clinical trial in people. The therapy involves transplanting stem cells that have been turned into neural stem cells which secrete a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been shown to promote the growth and improve the function of brain cells. The goal is to slow down the progression of this debilitating disease.

“Huntington’s disease affects around 30,000 people in the US and children born to parents with HD have a 50/50 chance of getting the disease themselves,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, the President and CEO of CIRM. “We have supported Dr. Thompson’s work for a number of years, reflecting our commitment to helping the best science advance, and are hopeful today’s vote will take it a crucial step closer to a clinical trial.”

Another project supported by CIRM at an earlier stage of research was also given funding for a clinical trial.

The Board approved almost $12 million to support a clinical trial to help people undergoing a kidney transplant. Right now, there are around 100,000 people in the US waiting to get a kidney transplant. Even those fortunate enough to get one face a lifetime on immunosuppressive drugs to stop the body rejecting the new organ, drugs that increase the risk for infection, heart disease and diabetes.  

Dr. Everett Meyer, and his team at Stanford University, will use a combination of healthy donor stem cells and the patient’s own regulatory T cells (Tregs), to train the patient’s immune system to accept the transplanted kidney and eliminate the need for immunosuppressive drugs.

The initial group targeted in this clinical trial are people with what are called HLA-mismatched kidneys. This is where the donor and recipient do not share the same human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), proteins located on the surface of immune cells and other cells in the body. Around 50 percent of patients with HLA-mismatched transplants experience rejection of the organ.

In his application Dr. Meyer said they have a simple goal: “The goal is “one kidney for life” off drugs with safety for all patients. The overall health status of patients off immunosuppressive drugs will improve due to reduction in side effects associated with these drugs, and due to reduced graft loss afforded by tolerance induction that will prevent chronic rejection.”