Funding boost for Birmingham rare disease research

BHP founder-member the University of Birmingham has been awarded a £500k Pathfinder Award from the medical research charity LifeArc which will support early-stage projects with a focus on translational development in rare diseases.

The successful projects have now been announced following an internal selection process. Research, conducted by the University of Birmingham and working across Birmingham Health Partners, will begin this spring.

Professor Timothy Barrett, Director of the Centre for Rare Disease Studies (CRDS) Birmingham, commented: “I am thrilled that our Centre for Rare Disease Studies at the University of Birmingham has been successful in securing a LifeArc Pathfinder Award. We are working closely with other organisations from Birmingham Health Partners; Birmingham Children’s and Women’s Hospital and University Hospitals Birmingham; to fund a number of impactful translational research projects through the fund. Our uniquely diverse patient population, and strength in partnership ensures that we are in the best possible position to drive forward research in rare diseases to accelerate progress and ultimately improve patients’ lives.”

Around the world, approximately 300 million people are living with a rare disease. A disease is considered rare if it affects less than 1 in 2000 people. Around 80% of rare diseases have a genetic component. They are often chronic, progressive, degenerative and frequently life-threatening with no existing cure.

Owing to the nature of rare disease, small patient populations make research challenging. Lack of scientific knowledge and quality of information on rare diseases can mean that misdiagnosis is common and treatment options may be limited.

The Centre for Rare Disease Studies supports basic and applied research, in order to build a pipeline of translational research from gene discovery to improving the diagnosis, clinical management and treatment of these disorders.

Research projects that will benefit from the Pathfinder Award include:

      • The NEEDED Study (NanoporE Enhances Diagnosis in rarE Disease), led by Dr Hannah Titheradge, which will investigate the effectiveness of a new type of genome sequencing to identify rare diseases.
      • A proof-of concept study, led by Dr Nekisa Zakeri, which aims to develop a novel ‘off-the-shelf’ T cell immunotherapy capable of providing more effective treatment for patients with a rare liver cancer.
      • The CATCH Study (CArbalivefor the Treatment of CHoleastic Disease), led by Dr Palak Trivedi, looks into whether a new medical device can absorb toxins from the gut to reduce inflammation and scarring in primary sclerosing cholangitis; a rare progressive liver disorder for which no medical treatment has been shown to slow disease progression.
      • Dr Richard Tuxworth and Professor Zubair Ahmed, whose research in DNA damage in nerve cells has already resulted in patent applications covering pathways and mechanisms that could provide new therapies for neurological conditions and spinal cord injury, will now work with Professor Andrew Beggs and Dr Chiara Bardella to investigate the potential for one of these pathways (the ATM-Chk-2 pathway) as a basis for therapies to tackle rare neurological conditions that appear early in childhood.
      • Dr Sovan Sarkar’s study aims to improve the health of patients with rare childhood-onset forms of neurodegeneration by correcting the process of autophagy that normally removes undesirable cellular materials which is detrimental to brain cells called neurons.

Dr Hannah Titheradge, a Consultant in Clinical Genetics at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, will investigate the effectiveness of nanopore sequencing – a new type of real time genome sequencing – on a larger group of patients. Previously tested on a very small sample, this new technology showed promise for improving our capability to diagnose rare diseases.

Nanopore sequencing reads more letters in an individual’s genome than the standard sequencing method used to diagnose rare genetic disorders. The NEEDED Study (NanoporE Enhances Diagnosis in rarE Disease) will explore a more detailed approach that could improve the percentage of patients who receive an important genetic diagnosis, which can help those patients and their families face their challenges feeling better informed.

Dr Hannah Titheradge commented: “Receiving a diagnosis can be an uphill challenge for patients with rare diseases and their families. These individuals often wait years for a final diagnosis, having undergone multiple tests and procedures. Having a diagnosis is very important because it helps these individuals better understand their health problems and plan for the future. Some genetic conditions are treatable, and a diagnosis is the first step towards accessing these treatments. We can also understand whether any other family members’ health may be affected. For these reasons, any advance that can be made in improving rare disease diagnostics is invaluable.”

Samira Fakire, Business Manager at LifeArc, added: “We hope that the Pathfinder Award will encourage more researchers to move into the rare disease space and promote the development of a translational culture – pushing more discoveries from the lab into meaningful real-world benefits for patients.”