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.

Advocating for Huntington’s Disease: Daniel Medina’s Journey

Daniel Medina

In honor of Huntington’s Disease (HD) Awareness Month, we’re featuring a guest blog by HD patient advocate Daniel Medina. Daniel became actively involved in the HD community when he learned that his younger brother was at risk for inheriting this devastating neurodegenerative disease. Since then he has been a champion for HD awareness by organizing HD patient support groups and walks in southern California and serving on the Board of HD Care, UC Irvine’s non-profit HD support group. 


Guest Blog by Daniel Medina

A visit to a care home back in April of 2012 changed my life forever. It all started when my mother took my 14-year-old half-brother to meet his grandfather for the very first time. My brother’s aunt led the way to what seemed to be an emotional, long overdue family encounter.  As they walked into his room they were impacted by what they saw.

They saw an elderly, bedridden gentleman that suffered from uncontrollable body movements. He was unable to communicate and was totally dependent on others. As the tears flowed, so did my mom’s sense of urgency to find out the name of his affliction. That’s when the words “Huntington’s disease” were uttered by my brother’s aunt. Her knowledge was limited to sharing that it was a genetic disease.

I immediately began my own research as the details of this encounter were relayed to me. My curiosity soon turned into despair and anguish as I learned that my brother was at risk of being a carrier of this horrible neurodegenerative disease.  I felt empowered as I began attending HD fundraising events. There I met so many courageous families that clung to the hope of a better tomorrow.  This hope came through the possibility of scientists working towards finding a treatment or a cure through stem cell research.

As of 2013 my role had evolved from an event attendee to a patient advocate. It became clear to me that there was an immediate need to fill voids that were unattended. In 2014, I started an HD support group in my area in order to tend to the needs of the HD community. The appreciation and gratitude I felt made every second I invested very much worthwhile.

In the last three years, we have seen the tremendous impact and growth HD organizations like Help4HD International, HD CARE and WeHaveAFace, have had on a local and global scale. It has been such an honor and a privilege to work alongside them. Our collaborative efforts have had a ripple effect of amazing results. The success of one is the success of all.

At the beginning of 2015, I was introduced to Americans for Cures. Working to promote and educate the public about the benefits of stem cell stem research was a perfect fit. Meeting advocates from other disease communities has educated me and taught me how our common goals towards finding cures unites us.

My HD Advocacy journey began with a simple visit to a care home. In a matter of a few years, it has transformed into a life mission to help those suffering the effects of this terrible disease.

2016 HD-CARE Conference. Patient Advocates Ron Shapiro, Adrienne Shapiro, David Saldana, Frances Saldana, Daniel Medina with Karen Ring from CIRM.

On the Hunt for Huntington’s Disease Treatments in the New Millennium

“Over the next five to ten years, we want to make Huntington’s disease an increasingly treatable condition.”

This bold and inspiring statement was made by Dr. Ray Dorsey at the inaugural HD-CARE symposium for Huntington’s disease (HD) research held at UC Irvine last month. The event brought together scientists, doctors, patients, family members, and caregivers to discuss the latest discoveries in HD research and to talk openly about how we can address the unmet needs of patients suffering from this terrible, deadly neurodegenerative disease.

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Symposium speakers and HD-CARE Board Members

The symposium was hosted by HD-CARE, a non-profit organization established three years ago to support HD research and patient care. Frances Saldaña, HD-CARE president and a CIRM patient advocate, established this symposium with the goal of bringing new hope to HD patients and their family members.

Frances Saldana, HD-CARE President & Patient Advocate

Frances Saldana

“There is so much exciting research taking place all over the world that one can hardly contain oneself with excitement and hope,” explained Saldaña. “It is only right to share this scientific information and breakthroughs in HD research that has undoubtedly given our families so much hope.”

Recent breakthroughs

The symposium featured talks by scientists and doctors that spanned a broad range of topics including the recent progress of using human stem cells to model HD, the hope and hype of gene editing, and the benefits of in vitro fertilization (IVF) for HD families.

Dr. Ray Dorsey, Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, gave the keynote address. Inspiring from the start, he captured the audience’s attention by posing the question, “Why are we here?” To which he answered, “I think we are here to change this sign, which says Huntington’s disease is a fatal genetic neurodegenerative disease, to one that says HD is an increasingly treatable condition. Over the next five to ten years, we want to make HD an increasingly treatable condition.”

Referencing the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, Dorsey pointed out that there is precedent. What was thought to be a disease with a rapid death sentence is now, decades later, a treatable condition, and his belief is that the same can be done for HD patients in the near future.

Dorsey next highlighted major clinical advances in HD treatment including a record ten drugs currently in development in 2016. Treatments that he felt had particular promise included a gene silencing therapy by Ionis Pharmaceuticals, which is the first treatment being tested in clinical trials that targets the cause of HD. Dorsey also mentioned two drugs, Pridopidine and SD-809 (a modified version of the FDA-approved drug Tetrabenazine), that are used to treat symptoms of HD.

My favorite part of the talk was the end where he described his latest efforts to develop digital biomarkers that use smart phones and wearables to monitor a patient’s response to HD treatments in their own home.  This technology will not only make it easier to determine which treatments are effective for HD, but will also improve the quality of care patients receive during clinical trials.

Dr. Ray Dorsey

Dr. Ray Dorsey

“We think that these devices, which allow us to make assessments of how people are doing with a given condition, will soon be able to connect patients to clinicians so they can receive care regardless of who they are or where they live. We hope that for Huntington’s disease, these tools and technologies will enable us to connect patients to effective treatments for HD.”

Battle cry for change

While the science at the symposium was certainly encouraging, the voices of the patients and patient advocates made the strongest impression. Many of them spoke out to share their stories or ask questions. Others, like Saldaña, advocated for faster progress towards a cure.

“This disease is one in which family members and friends need to rally together and demand that research be properly funded to end this generational disease.  It is not one in which policy makers can sit around and wonder if they should fund it…it is a five-alarm fire that needs immediate action, and from the families, a fierce battle cry asking from policy makers and decision makers to fund aggressive research to end Huntington’s disease.”

Julie Rosling, Frances Saldana,

Julie Rosling receives the Patient Advocacy Award from HD-CARE’s Frances Saldana and Karen Thornburn

A particularly moving event was the presentation of the 2016 Patient Advocacy Award to Julie Rosling. Members of the HD-CARE board presented Rosling with a trophy to honor her brave efforts in advocating for HD patient rights. Saldaña described how Rosling was fearless at a HD patient-focused drug development meeting with the FDA in DC last fall. Along with other patients, she stood up and challenged the FDA to move HD into the fast track category for approving clinical trials.

A similar demand for regulatory change was brought up during the symposium regarding the approval of stem cell treatments for HD. As the representative for CIRM, I had a few moments to talk about our new Stem Cell Champions campaign, which is actively recruiting patient advocates that can work with us to help make the FDA approval process for stem cell treatments faster and more efficient. Our colleagues at Americans for Cures also spoke briefly about their efforts to promote the acceleration of stem cell treatments and improve the lives of HD patients.

By the end of the symposium, there was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and more importantly a renewed sense of hope for the future of HD treatments.

“It was extremely successful and I believe everyone left feeling very optimistic about the future for HD families,” said Saldaña. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Patient Advocates Ron Shapiro, Adrienne Shapiro, David Saldana, Frances Saldana, Daniel Medina with Karen Ring from CIRM


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