Batten disease patients highlight CHOC’s growing reputation as a destination for kids with rare conditions

In the yard of his home just outside Boise, Idaho, Ely Bowman loves to toss balls and play with Bobo, the family Goldendoodle. He also loves the trampoline.

“If you were to come over and just watch him,” says his mother, Bekah, “you would not believe me if I told you he was blind.”

Ely, who turns 8 in July, lost his sight when he was 6 due to the rare neurological disorder CLN2 disease, one of the most common forms of a group of inherited disorders known as Batten disease.

Kids with CLN2 disease are missing an enzyme that chews up waste products in the brain. This lack of a cellular “Pac Man” to gobble up the bad stuff eventually leads to the destruction of neurons, resulting in blindness, loss of ability to speak or move, dementia, and death – usually by the teens.

There is no cure for CLN2 disease. But thanks to genetic scientists, neurosurgeons and nurses at CHOC, there is hope for delaying progression of the disease – one that claimed the life of Ely’s older brother, Titus, at age 6 in September 2016 before a cutting-edge therapy became available at CHOC six months later.

Ely Bowman and his older brother, Titus. Both were diagnosed with Batten disease. Titus passed away in 2016 at age 6.

The therapy, Brineura, is a medication that treats the brain via a port under the scalp with a synthetic form of the missing enzyme. CLN2 patients come to CHOC every two weeks for the four-hour infusion to keep the drug working effectively.

Largest infusion center in country

CHOC since has grown into the largest Brineura infusion center in the country and the second largest in the world. Kids from all over the United States have come to CHOC for Brineura treatment since it first was offered in March 2017 following a three-year effort by Dr. Raymond Wang to get the green light for CHOC to become the second infusion site in the U.S.

Dr. Raymond Wang, director of the multidisciplinary lysosomal storage disorder program at CHOC

“When a family has a child with a rare disease,” Dr. Wang says, “and if the South Pole were the only place that was offering treatment, the family would find a way to get there. Those are the lengths that a rare disease family would go to help their child.”

CHOC now has treated 13 Brineura patients, the latest being 3-year-old Max Burnham, whose parents having been making the trek to Orange every two weeks from their home in the Bay Area since Max’s first infusion on Feb. 8, 2021.

CHOC’s Brineura program underscores its growing reputation as a destination for kids with rare diseases.

Recently, CHOC specialists started treating a 3-month-old with Hurler syndrome, another serious and neurodegenerative condition. The family drove across the country because CHOC is the only site in the world that has a clinical trial of gene therapy for their son’s condition.

Because the family will be staying at CHOC for at least through April 2021, a team of three study coordinators — Nina Movsesyan, Harriet Chang, and Ingrid Channa – helped the family get settled in at an Airbnb in Irvine.

“Our case managers and financial coordinators were crucial in getting the infant’s weekly enzyme therapy approved within a week’s time, and our excellent nurse practitioner, Rebecca Sponberg, asked purchasing to procure the enzyme drug for the baby on two days’ notice,” notes Dr. Wang, a metabolic specialist and director of CHOC’s Campbell Foundation of Caring Multidisciplinary Lysosomal Storage Disorder Program.

Dr. Wang says CHOC became an active site for the RGX-111 gene therapy after treating a child from a family in Indio in 2019. Another 14-year-old girl from West Virginia has received the same treatment.

“All of these cases wouldn’t be possible without the awesome teamwork from team members, who all are dedicated to the mission of CHOC,” says Dr. Wang. “I think it’s pretty remarkable that people from all over the country are coming here for clinical care and research studies because of our expertise and what we offer them: hope for their beloved children.”

A true team effort

For the Brineura infusions, which are administered by pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Joffre Olaya, CHOC metabolic specialists work closely with providers in CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute.

Dr. Joffre Olaya, pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC

Susan See is nurse manager of CHOC Hospital’s neuroscience unit, where the patients receive their infusion and stay for care afterward.

“We quickly put together a comprehensive program that really treats the patient and family not just medically, but also from an emotional support standpoint,” she says.

Batten disease especially is terribly cruel because its symptoms typically hit just as parents are starting to enjoy their child reaching several developmental and cognitive milestones such as walking and talking.

Untreated, the disease eventually takes all that away.

“What makes them who they are gets rapidly erased,” says Dr. Wang. “As a practitioner, it’s hard. I’m trying to imagine being in the shoes of a parent knowing this is going to happen to their child.”

For Bekah Bowman and her husband, Daniel, the diagnosis for Titus and, two months later, Ely, was like being on a high diving board and being shoved off and belly flopping into the water.

“We had to learn what little control we have in life,” Bekah says.

The Bowmans worked closely with Dr. Wang to get the Brineura clinical trial launched at CHOC.

“When we met Dr. Wang,” Bekah says, “he told us: ‘We don’t have the answers for you right now, but I want you to know we’re going to keep fighting and we’re not going to give up.’”

Brineura families form tight bonds with their team at CHOC, which includes eight nurses who have been trained to care for them: Allison Cubacub, Genevieve Romano-Valera, Anh Nguyen, Melissa Rodriguez, Kendall Galbraith, Annsue Truong, Monica Hernandez and Trisha Stockton.

Some families, including the Bowmans, have moved on from the program at CHOC when Brineura infusions became available near their hometowns. The Bowmans returned to their native Idaho outside Boise in October 2018. Leaving CHOC was difficult.

“That was one of the hardest goodbyes we had to say,” Bekah says.

All Brineura patients receive the transfusions on the same day – something unique to CHOC, See says.

“We learn what is unique about each patient and we become very close to them,” she adds. “It really reminds us why we said yes to nursing. What we thrive on is being able to care for families.”

Quick to action

Laura Millener, the mother of Max, CHOC’s latest Brineura patient, says she selected CHOC for Max’s condition, diagnosed in January 2021, because he needed to be treated right away. She first spoke to Dr. Wang on Jan. 11, and Max got his first infusion less than a month later.

“You could just tell how much he cares about his patients,” Laura says of Dr. Wang.

Max Burnham had his first infusion at CHOC on Feb. 8, 2021

Says Dr. Wang, who has three children ages 10 to 18: “I count [my patients and my families] as my extended family, and I want the best for all of them.”

Laura and her husband, Matthew, a C-5 pilot in the U.S. Air Force, will be relocating to Quantico Marine Base in Virginia this summer from Pleasantville, Calif. Max, who has a 6-year-old sister, Ella, will continue his Brineura infusions at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t want to leave CHOC,” Laura says. “CHOC has done such an amazing job of making this easier on us. I am so grateful for the team.”

Dr. Wang says the Brineura infusions have made it possible for the patients to maintain meaningful interactions with their parents and siblings – despite having such conditions as, in Ely’s case, blindness.

Ultimately, the goal is for CHOC to be considered for a gene therapy clinical trial aimed at giving brain cells the ability to produce the missing enzyme by itself so Batten disease patients wouldn’t have to receive infusions every two weeks. Dr. Wang says such a trial could happen this fall.

“If there’s anything in my power I can do to help these families,” says Dr. Wang, “I’m going to try to make it happen.”

Learn more about CHOC’s robust metabolic disorders program.

Artificial intelligence seen as critical tool in helping to diagnose rare diseases

Machine learning algorithms could make a dramatic difference when it comes to diagnosing children with rare diseases, two CHOC doctors said in a recent webinar.

Although the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in diagnosing medical conditions is in its infancy stages, the potential is huge, said Dr. Jose Abdenur and Dr. Terence Sanger, speaking on a panel during a two-week summit on rare diseases hosted by Global Genes, an Aliso Viejo-based non-profit that advocates for the rare disease community.

“Human decision making is very, very good,” said Dr. Sanger, vice president for research and chief scientific officer at CHOC. “But we’re not very good at incorporating tens of thousands of pieces of information into making these decisions.”

That’s where machine learning could be of immense value, he and Dr. Abdenur said in the one-hour discussion on Sept. 22, which can be viewed in its entirety here.

Machine learning involves the use of computer algorithms that improve automatically by building mathematical models based on reams of data. This makes AI particularly valuable for improving the rare disease diagnosis process, which remains far from perfect, says Abdenur, chief of the division of metabolic disorders at CHOC and director of CHOC’s metabolic laboratory.

Although great strides are being made in diagnosing rare diseases through such processes as rapid whole genome sequencing, 40 percent of families with sick children still do not have diagnoses, Dr. Abdenur said.

“We’re doing better, but we’re definitely not good enough,” he said. “We hope in the future that artificial intelligence and machine learning will help us (reach diagnoses faster).”

In diagnosing patients, clinicians consider a list of possible conditions or diseases that could be causing symptoms – what’s known as making a differential diagnosis. They consider such things as a patient’s symptoms, his or her medical history, basic lab results, and a physical examination.

With AI, a virtually limitless amount of information beyond that – such as similar symptoms that have occurred in patients around the world, the environment they live in, etc. – could be factored into helping make differential diagnoses.

Dr. Sanger compared the benefits of using AI in diagnosing patients to a standard camera – what’s used now – to a wide-angel lens that can take in much more information, which machine learning would provide.

“If you have an avalanche of information, (physicians) can’t take all of it in themselves,” Dr. Abdenur noted.

But a sophisticated machine-learning program could, he and other panelists said.

An algorithm that gets smarter over time would lead to faster, simpler, accurate, and earlier diagnoses, said panel member Annastasiah Mhaka, co-founder of the Alliance for AI in Healthcare.

“Data is at the heart of (learning more about rare childhood diseases), and AI would help along every step of the way,” said another panelist, Sebastien Lefebvre, an analyst with Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

Both Dr. Abdenur and Dr. Sanger agreed that AI could be used to augment a clinician’s decision, but never replace it.

“(AI) never makes a decision for you,” Sanger said. “It just assists in the decision making.”

Newly emerging technologies such as machine learning in healthcare could lead to lower healthcare costs and better treatment, Mhaka said.

“Diagnosis needs are huge and unmet in the (rare disease) population,” she noted.

Learn more about rare disease research at CHOC.

CHOC earns $1 million grant to advance rare disease genome-editing therapy

With an aim of addressing a critical and unmet need in rare disease research, CHOC will advance rare disease genome editing therapeutics, thanks to a $1 million grant from The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation.

The funding will help form CHOC Center for Advancing Rare disease Editing (CARE), allowing researchers to further their work to use genome editing to rapidly generate, characterize and treat preclinical models of rare disorders with known pathogenic mutations.

Genome editing therapy has the potential to permanently correct underlying pathogenic mutations in patients with some rare diseases. This treatment addresses the root cause of the disorder, eliminating the need for more standard therapies like enzyme replacement and stem cell transplantation that often require repeated treatments.

“CHOC is at the forefront of operating at the interface of translational research and clinical care of rare disorders,” said Brent Dethlefs, executive director of the CHOC Research Institute. “Our ultimate goal is to provide patients with rare diseases with an objective, rigorous assessment of whether genome editing therapy has the potential to advance their current standard of care.”

The work will build upon CHOC’s existing successes in developing preclinical models of rare diseases. For example, CHOC’s lysosomal storage disorders research team has already generated the first preclinical models of Pompe disease – a rare and fatal disorder that affects the heart and muscles – that are suitable for genome editing therapy and exhibit molecular, biochemical and functional analogy to patients with the severe infantile-onset form of the disease.

“Given the success of this project, we have received multiple inquiries from research colleagues seeking to collaborate and patient advocacy groups hoping to generate additional preclinical models of rare disease, but until now, we’ve never had the resources to participate,” CHOC scientist Dr. Jeffrey Huang said. “We believe that CARE has the potential for rapid growth given the intrinsic scalability of genome editing as a strategy to generate preclinical models and develop novel therapeutics.”

The Hoag Foundation funding complements a grant CARE recently received from the CHOC Foundation’s One Wish Grants awards. The grant awards unrestricted funds to outstanding ideas that drive advancement toward CHOC’s strategic goals.

The mission of The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation is to educate, empower and create greater opportunity for at-risk children to become independent, productive and contributing members of society; support medical research and technology to enhance the health and well-being of children; and support such other compelling purposes that will enhance the quality of life for residents in Southern California.

Learn more about the CHOC Research Institute.