Today is Rare Disease Day

The most satisfying aspect of my job is when I meet a patient who is suffering from a rare disease that until very recently was untreatable, but which today can be treated with a newly-approved medication.

Last May, at my organization’s annual dinner, we invited four patients to come to the podium to discuss their diseases. They then made presented awards to the presidents of the companies that had developed a new drug already being used to treat their disease. I saw tears come to the eyes of the people attending the dinner.

We all know one or more people who are alive today because of the remarkable medical advances made very recently. This includes the many new treatments for both rare and more common cancers. The latest report from the American Cancer Society noted that between 1991 and 2010, there was a 20 percent decline in the overall death rate from cancer. The organization that I head, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), focuses on patients with a rare disease, which is defined as a disease that affects 200,000 or fewer patients in the U.S. Many rare diseases are cancer, and as we learn more about cancer, more and more will be classified as “rare.”

This week is a special week for all patients with a rare disease, as Friday, Feb. 28, is commemorated around the world as Rare Disease Day.

We designate the last day in February as Rare Disease Day because every four years, when there is a leap year, the last day of the month is February 29. It truly is the rarest date on the calendar.

This year, my thoughts turn to the remarkable progress we are making in developing new treatments. Cancer research is especially exciting. Cancer immunotherapy – using the body’s own immune system to fight cancers – promises to lead to new therapies for solid tumor conditions such as melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer and bladder cancer.

At NORD, we rededicate ourselves this week to the tasks that are especially critical for the 30 million Americans with a rare disease. Five tasks stand out:

1. Supporting research for rare diseases, including cancers that are rare. It is ironic that we are on the cusp of so many scientific advances, at a time when the research dollars are becoming scarcer. At NORD, our goal is to support the federal and private commitment to medical research.

2. Enhancing the capability of physicians to diagnose rare diseases. Most physicians have little experience in diagnosing a rare disease, some of which affect a handful of people. For many diseases, it can take half a dozen years, or more, before an accurate diagnosis is made. At NORD, we support systems that provide broader education for physicians in enabling them to diagnose rare diseases more quickly and with greater accuracy.

3. Expediting clinical trials. Testing new treatments is always time consuming, especially when little is known about a disease, and when there are few patients to test. At NORD we are committed to increasing our knowledge about how a rare disease naturally progresses, with no intervention or with existing interventions, because we can then more easily assess the effectiveness of a new treatment. And we also have established networks of patients with rare diseases so that recruitment for clinical trials can be expedited.

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