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A Couple's Quest To Stop A Rare Disease Before It Takes One Of Them

Sonia Vallabh lost her mother to a rare brain disease in 2010, and then learned she had inherited the same genetic mutation. She and her husband, Eric Minikel, went back to school to study the family of illnesses — prion diseases — in the hope of finding a cure for Sonia.
Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Sonia Vallabh lost her mother to a rare brain disease in 2010, and then learned she had inherited the same genetic mutation. She and her husband, Eric Minikel, went back to school to study the family of illnesses — prion diseases — in the hope of finding a cure for Sonia.

In 2010, Sonia Vallabh watched her mom, Kamni Vallabh, die in a really horrible way.

First, her mom's memory started to go, then she lost the ability to reason. Sonia says it was like watching someone get unplugged from the world. By the end, it was as if she was stuck between being awake and asleep. She was confused and uncomfortable all the time.

"Even when awake, was she fully or was she really? And when asleep, was she really asleep?" says Sonia.

The smart, warm, artistic Kamni – just 51 years old — was disappearing into profound dementia.

"I think until you've seen it, it's hard to actually imagine what it is for a person to be alive and their body is moving around, but their brain is not there anymore," says Eric Minikel, Sonia's husband.

In less than a year, Sonia's mom died.

An autopsy showed Kamni had died from something rare -- a prion disease. Specifically, one called fatal familial insomnia because in some patients it steals the ability to fall asleep.

Basically, certain molecules had started clumping together in Kamni's brain, killing her brain cells. It was all because of one tiny error in her DNA — an "A" where there was supposed to be a "G," a single typo in a manuscript of 6 billion letters.

Sonia sent a sample of her own blood to a lab, where a test confirmed she inherited the same mutation. The finding threw the family into grief all over again.

"But that grieving period sort of started to resolve within about a week or so," she says. "And we weren't in crisis anymore. We were finding our way toward a new normal, where this was something that we were going to have to live with and deal with and learn more about."

Today, Sonia and her husband live and work in Cambridge, Mass., where they are both doctoral students in the lab of Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard professor of chemistry and chemical biology. Over the past several years, the couple has completely redirected their careers and their lives toward this single goal: to prevent prion disease from ever making Sonia sick.

The two wear bright colors and laugh easily. When they answer my questions, they look at each other instead of at me. They like complicated board games, urban walks and efficient cooking. They are thinkers and problem solvers, which is why, when Sonia got her genetic test results, it changed everything.

The change

"It didn't happen all at once," Sonia says. "There wasn't a day when we woke up and said, 'OK let's change everything about our lives.'"

At the time, Sonia, who has a Harvard law degree, had just started a new job as a legal consultant. Eric was a transportation analyst.

But they couldn't stop thinking about Sonia's test result. They started researching prion diseases online, and invited over friends who are biologists and chemists, to help them understand the science.

"And around that time," Sonia says, "we both enrolled in night classes as well," in subjects like biology and neuroscience.

They were hungry to learn more as quickly as possible; the night classes weren't enough.

"I was basically fresh out of law school and started walking into classes at MIT during the day because this was kind of all I could think about," says Sonia, who at the time wore sneakers every day so that she could rush between work, classes, and a neuroscience lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. She'd started volunteering there, thanks to a professor from one of her classes, and mentors in the lab who helped her learn everything from how to use a pipette to how to work with human brain cells.

"And from there, this is where things happened surprisingly quickly," Sonia says.

Eric and Sonia prepare materials for an experiment measuring prion protein in spinal fluid. They're both third-year Harvard graduate students doing research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
/ Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Eric and Sonia prepare materials for an experiment measuring prion protein in spinal fluid. They're both third-year Harvard graduate students doing research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

The couple started a nonprofit, Prion Alliance, in hopes of raising money for research. Sonia left her legal job to work in the Mass General lab full-time as a technician. Then, Eric left his job and joined a genetics lab, applying his skills in coding to analyzing genetic data, rather than transportation data.

"I was getting left behind!" he says. "Sonia was out there doing all this science. It was her day job now and I was still in my old career and, you know, it was a good job and all, it was meaningful, but it wasn't the mission that it was increasingly clear that we were going to be on."

Just months after they'd finished grad school in law and urban planning, the pair went back to graduate school, this time in biomedical sciences — to study prion diseases.

"You are talking to two third-year graduate students," says Eric.

Life as scientists

The two now share an office and a lab bench, under Schreiber's supervision, at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

"There's a date in the future when Sonia will get the first dose of the drug that's going to save her life," Eric says. "What can I do today that brings that date closer to the present?"

A posted printout of an email says: "Let's just blast forward and solve problems as they become real and as they need immediate solutions." It's a note Schreiber sent the pair at one point when they were worrying about bureaucratic hoops they had to jump through.

"I thought it was a good philosophy, so we printed it out and put it on the wall," says Eric.

Sonia and Eric are "the best of humanity" Schreiber tells Shots. "Their story is, of course, remarkable, and they personify the concept of patient–scientists. But their deep understanding of science and ability to innovate and execute on one of the hardest challenges in biomedical science are breathtaking."

Schreiber says that his lab, like many others in biomedicine, has long included researchers who are physicians as well as scientists; that dual training and experience brings an important perspective to the research, he says.

"But the last decade has seen the emergence of patient–scientists — including Sonia and Eric, but also others in my lab," he says. "And this has had an even greater impact on the lab. They remind us of our mission — to understand and treat human disease."

Still, it's really hard to cure diseases — especially conditions like this one, because the usual way scientists look for a treatment isn't going to work.

Sonia is 33 years old. On average, people with the kind of genetic mutation she has usually start to show symptoms at age 50. But they could surface at any time. Symptoms of fatal familial insomnia have set in as early as age 12 and as late as 84. Once they do, it's a rapid decline — like Alzheimer's disease on fast-forward.

"You're healthy, you're healthy, you're healthy and then you're falling off a cliff," says Sonia. "You wait a little bit too long, and that patient is gone. We need to get out ahead of it — aggressively."

The challenge

They need to keep Sonia from getting sick in the first place. And they need to do it quickly. But right now, Sonia appears to be just fine, and that's actually one of the first obstacles.

Across medicine, there is an understandable resistance to testing experimental drugs on healthy people. That's why, traditionally, drug trials go something like this: Take a group of people who are sick, give some of them an experimental medicine, and wait to see if it makes them get better, live longer, or decline more slowly than people who didn't get the drug.

But Sonia has to convince the medical establishment that, especially in the age of genetics, some people who seem perfectly healthy should be considered patients.

Sonia measures prion protein in mouse cells. In prion disease, certain proteins in the brain start clumping together, which eventually kills neurons.
/ Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Sonia measures prion protein in mouse cells. In prion disease, certain proteins in the brain start clumping together, which eventually kills neurons.

"We have to be willing to act upstream of what we would traditionally call 'illness'," she says.

It's a shift in mindset that she had to come to grips with, personally.

"I feel very lucky to be healthy today," she says. "But I hold a sort of dual reality understanding of my own health, which is that I'm healthy today but very seriously at risk for a very serious disease."

Others in the medical field, like Dr. Reisa Sperling, who studies Alzheimer's disease, are making the same mental shift as they think about the best time to intervene.

"Alzheimer's disease is a terrible disease. Many people fear it more than cancer," says Sperling, a neurologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Like Sonia and Eric, she, too, is on a quest to prevent even the first symptoms of a terrible brain disease.

Sperling is now enrolling people whose brain scans show they might be in the very early stages of Alzheimer's in a clinical trial to test an experimental drug treatment. And she's planning another study in people as young as 50 who have no noticeable symptoms, but are at high risk of developing them.

"It really does primarily come down to thinking about disease as beginning years before symptoms," says Sperling. "If we can shift that thinking — not just in Alzheimer's disease, but in rarer diseases like prion diseases — I think this is the way we win the war."

But before any of that can happen with a prion disease, there's the problem of actually doing the science to find a good candidate drug.

The plan

Researchers don't have one in hand yet, but they have a clear idea of what it should look like, based on studies in mice. Sonia and Eric already are talking to pharmaceutical companies that may be involved in running human trials in the future, and have requested a meeting with the Food and Drug Administration to talk about what a trial should involve.

Other efforts at treating prion disease have focused on preventing the misfolded proteins from killing brain cells, or on preventing them from accumulating. Sonia and Eric have a different approach.

"We're really interested in preventing the misfolding in the first place," says Sonia.

"Sonia's brain is producing this mutant protein," Eric says. "But as far as we know it's not misfolded yet, and the disease process hasn't started. I want her brain to be producing half or less of the amount of that protein as she is [producing] right now, because we know that less is better."

Essentially, they want to muffle the faulty gene in order to reduce the amount of prion protein floating around in Sonia's brain.

But a key question right now is this: Say they make the right drug and give it to Sonia and others with her type of mutation. If the goal is to change nothing about her current health, then how will they know it's actually working?

A traditional clinical trial is out of the question, Eric says.

It would be unethical and untenable he says, to "just treat half of the people with a drug and half with placebo and then wait 30 years to see when they die."

Not only would that kind of experiment condemn some patients to terrible death, it would also be wildly expensive and require thousands of participants. There are only a few hundred people in the U.S. with prion disease mutations.

"Instead, we need a biomarker," Eric says. "We need some laboratory test that we can run on a living human to see if the drug is having its effect."

The answer, Sonia and Eric hope, could be in a very cold refrigerator in the lab where they work. It's full of samples of spinal fluid. In mouse studies, at least, reducing prion protein in the brain seems to delay disease progression.

So, Sonia and Eric are now studying samples of spinal fluid from all sorts of people — from people who already have symptoms of prion disease, from others like Sonia (who have mutations for prion disease but no symptoms yet) and from healthy controls. The aim is to establish how the levels of protein in the samples change over time, to figure out if protein levels would be a good enough measure to say, "Yes, this drug works."

"We have strong evidence that 50 percent [reduction] — if we could achieve that — would be protective," says Sonia, based on preliminary findings in mice.

Others are optimistic, too

Sonia and Eric are organized, hardworking, and efficient. Ultimately, for them, failure is not an option. But on a day-to-day basis, failure is what science is all about.

Ericl and Sonia on their wedding day in 2009.
/ Zamana Photography/Courtesy of Sonia Vallabh
Zamana Photography/Courtesy of Sonia Vallabh
Ericl and Sonia on their wedding day in 2009.

"In biology, if everything you did one day goes wrong, and then you figure out why it went wrong, that was a good day," says Eric, who chronicles their struggles on a blog.

It's an achingly slow process. But Eric thinks they will do it — they'll find a drug.

"I'm an optimist that we'll get there in our lifetime," he says, "but not this year and not next year."

He's not alone in his optimism. Sonia and Eric have some powerful colleagues who believe the couple can pull it off — colleagues like Eric Lander, a renowned mathematician, geneticist and molecular biologist. He started the Human Genome Project and founded the Broad Institute where Sonia and Eric now work.

"This is not pie in the sky," says Lander. "I see a path forward for multiple shots on goal. All you have to do is get one through."

Fifteen years ago, he says, solving this puzzle would have seemed impossible. But now he believes the science, the technology, and the knowledge about what certain mutations mean for a person's health have made defeating prion disease possible.

"Human genetics and molecular medicine are reaching a point of maturity where they're becoming much more powerful," he says. "It's exciting and important and there's nobody who's more motivated than somebody who's going to be affected by the disease themselves."

One small success

In one way, Sonia and Eric have already stopped the disease in its tracks.

Sonia is very pregnant. She's due in July to have a daughter — a daughter without a mutation for prion disease. That's something the couple made sure of by screening embryos after in vitro fertilization.

A collection of mementos from Sonia and Eric's wedding in 2009 hangs on a wall in their apartment.
/ Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Kayana Szymczak for NPR
A collection of mementos from Sonia and Eric's wedding in 2009 hangs on a wall in their apartment.

So, they've stopped the transmission of prion disease in Sonia's line of the family. And in a way, that's a gift from Sonia's mom, Kamni, the couple says.

"If my mom was still alive, we wouldn't know any of this and we wouldn't have had the opportunity to choose to have a mutation-negative baby," says Sonia. "But, tragically, it also means that they'll never meet."

Sonia and Eric hope that, by the time their daughter is in elementary school, Sonia will be taking an experimental drug that could keep her as healthy as she is today.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 19, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sonia Vallabh and Eric Minikel are now the parents of a healthy daughter, Daruka Vallabh Minikel, who keeps them company in their office at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.

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