A new $490 million business deal pits pharmaceutical companies against each other in a race to develop drugs for a rare genetic disease: Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). One in 8,000 babies is born with SMA compared to one in 4,000 born with Cystic Fibrosis, a similar degenerative disease that has garnered much more public attention and fundraising.
SMA therapy has lagged partly due to this lack of awareness. Unlike Miley Cyrus in the case of Cystic Fibrosis, there is no influential advocate for SMA. But Wall Street hedge fund manager Dinakar Singh started the SMA Foundation with millions of dollars from his and his wife’s personal fortune when his daughter Arya was diagnosed as a young child.
Singh calls the disease “common and potentially treatable”, and has been trying to light a fire under research scientists for years. It’s the kind of story that happens in movies: dad leaps into a pharmaceutical lab to convince scientists to find a cure for his dying child before it’s too late.
I hadn’t heard of the disease before this business story, and maybe its enigmatic presentation is the reason why. Sometimes an infant is born with the disorder and dies shortly after, but milder cases live a traditional life span with only minor disability, mainly muscle weakness and difficulty breathing.
One thing that strikes me about this recessively inherited disease: only a child of two carriers can develop SMA. Genetic counseling can screen parents for CFTR mutations for Cystic Fibrosis before they conceive, which is why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends testing for couples with a family history of Cystic Fibrosis.
French researchers discovered the defective gene responsible for SMA on chromosome 5 back in 1995. As it becomes easier to sequence whole genomes, it shouldn’t be that hard to identify SMA carriers ahead of time. If this much money is being poured into treatment/cure research, surely some could be diverted to encouraging SMA screening. This wouldn’t help cure Singh’s daughter, the SMA poster child, unfortunately. But it would open up a dialogue about genetic screening for lesser-known diseases, and that’s a conversation we should be having.