Newborn Screening Gets a Boost in North Carolina

By Nicole McEwen

On May 30, North Carolina leaders announced the expansion of the state’s newborn screening panel to include three rare diseases — Pompe disease, Mucopolysaccharidosis type 1 (MPS 1) and X-linked Adrenoleukodystropy (X-ALD). These same leaders are also committed to improving the process for adding conditions to the program in the future. Because of my role with Taylor’s Tale, I had an opportunity to attend the press conference in Raleigh. Here’s my take on the news as well as the importance of newborn screening programs.

Why is newborn screening important? 

Soon after birth, babies are screened for different diseases to ensure that, if needed, they receive early treatment and the best possible quality of life. This, in turn, saves families from much heartache and potentially a huge financial burden.

I graduated from the University of Georgia in May after spending my senior year as a Child Life Specialist intern at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, where I worked with children and families in a hospital setting. This means I saw, firsthand, the difference this bill will make for babies born in North Carolina.

Imagine a family having to sacrifice their first child to a rare disease in order to understand what’s wrong so that their future children can be tested and treated for that same disease. It sounds awful, but it’s a painful reality: many parents have multiple children born with a particular rare disease, and they are forced to watch one (or sometimes more than one) son or daughter suffer while younger children receive treatment and live a longer, healthier life.

Imagine being a parent in that situation and knowing the medical community could have done something to help your child, if your child had only been screened for the disease early. To boot, the financial burden of your oldest child’s condition could become long and protracted if they need more advanced treatment as their condition declines and the damage becomes irreversible.

Imagine knowing that all of it could have been easily avoided and changed.

That’s where newborn screening comes into play.

With this move, fewer children and families in North Carolina will suffer from lack of early and appropriate treatment. Families will have more time to get to know each other, do meaningful activities together and watch their children grow, so they can make meaningful contributions to a society that allowed them to live.

Everyone stands to benefit here: the child, the family, our healthcare system and our society.

How did the press conference in North Carolina unfold?

We arrived at the state capitol and headed into a room inside the legislative building, where white coats packed into one side of the room and patients and families filled the other. The middle of the room was reserved for press. I stood with Sharon King, Taylor’s Tale president and Taylor’s mother, and Judy Mayer, a Taylor’s Tale board member, to watch the morning unfold.

Sharon King at press conference

Legislators spoke about newborn screening and their excitement for the addition of these three conditions. This is a happy day, they said — for children, for families and for the state of North Carolina. It doesn’t just affect our state, they said. It will set a new precedent for the way we treat newborns and hopefully create a ripple effect across other states. Another mother of a child with a rare disease also came to the podium to share her experience. While her child received treatment, this mother stressed that it would have been much better if it had happened even a few months earlier.

Despite the excitement around the news, it isn’t without detractors. For example, some members of the media questioned the cost of adding conditions to the newborn screening panel. Wouldn’t this raise the price tag of newborn screening for mothers? Wouldn’t additional screenings require more expensive equipment? What would taxpayers think? How many babies do some of these diseases really affect? What are the numbers? Is it worth it?

This is where I believe it’s important to focus on the big picture. After all, many rare diseases are chronic illnesses that cost a lot of money to treat over the long haul in addition to causing a great deal of pain and suffering for patients and families. Catching these diseases early, so that patients can receive meaningful treatment, is far less costly than dealing with the diseases later. Remember, too, that rare diseases as a whole are far from rare. In fact, in North Carolina alone there are approximately one million rare disease patients.

I look forward to watching this crucial work move forward and feel lucky to have witnessed such a big day. However, I know there we still have a lot to do in order to help the public comprehend and see the big picture. The press conference was a crash course in rare disease advocacy, and more than ever, I understand why we can’t ever give up the fight. I look forward to sharing more from my experiences this summer and hope you’ll join Taylor’s Tale, and me, for the ride.

What Drives Me

By Laura Edwards

Tonight marked the fifth annual meeting of the board of directors of Taylor’s Tale. I slid behind the wheel of my car at 9 p.m. – almost three hours after I pulled into my parking spot and long after a faded sun dipped behind swollen, purple clouds outside the windows in the board room.

Four-plus years have passed since we became a public charity; six-plus years have passed since we declared war on Batten disease. The discussion at tonight’s meeting reflected the incredible progress that has been made since my mom placed a bulk order for copies of The Cure, Geeta Anand’s stunning account of how John Crowley raised $100 million in an effort to save his children from Pompe disease, and distributed them to a small battalion of hand-picked soldiers in a Charlotte living room in the fall of 2006.

IMG_0932Tonight, my mom sat at the head of a board room table to deliver her updates. Some of the faces around the table were the same; some of them were different.

One month ago, Mom attended the first Southeast Venture Philanthropy Summit in Chapel Hill. Other attendees included the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Gates Foundation and sleek biotech companies of all shapes and sizes.

Three days ago, Mom and two other board members toured the University of North Carolina’s Gene Therapy Center Vector Core – the most advanced facility of its kind in the nation. Down the street, one of the nation’s top gene therapy experts, Dr. Steven Gray, is leading a two-year gene therapy study for two forms of Batten disease that is partially funded by Taylor’s Tale. If successful, the work could lead to a human clinical trial in just a few short years. And as much as we want this for Batten disease, it’s much bigger than that. If Dr. Gray gets this to work, it can treat a lot of people with all types of problems; the principles can be applied to many other diseases – from Parkinson’s disease to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) to Alzheimer’s disease…I could go on. And not only that, but it will be a one-time, low-cost, minimally invasive treatment as opposed to life-long, expensive, potentially invasive treatments that – in many cases – address some of the symptoms but don’t treat the disease.

VectorCenterbannerSeven years ago, I was learning the ropes of healthcare marketing and PR, coaching a girls’ soccer team, covering sports for the local paper and planning a wedding. I had a half-finished young adult novel and figured I’d get to it as soon as the honeymoon ended.

That all changed when I got the phone call.

Google “neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis” and skim the search results. That’s how I first learned about our new world – and Taylor’s – on July 24, 2006, sitting at my desk at work, with my sobbing mother on the other end of the phone line.

The geneticist who diagnosed my sister said we shouldn’t bother with hope. My response from day one was “Screw that,” but fighting is easier said than done. It’s never been easy.

We’ve lost so much since that day.

But I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. Mom’s reports at tonight’s Taylor’s Tale board meeting embodied all that our team has accomplished and the astounding impact we stand to have.

Our fight began because of our love for one little girl. In those early days, we saw the love and the laughter and the courage that we so cherished about Taylor embodied in all of the children fighting Batten disease, and we fought for them too.

As we forged on, we learned more about the impact of rare disease: 30 million people in the United States – and 350 million worldwide. We realized that we could be doing more with the incredible scientific innovation we already have. We partnered with or endorsed organizations like the Global Genes Project and the EveryLife Foundation and went to Washington to lobby for all those fighting a rare disease.

And as we learned more and more about the wonders of gene therapy and the incredible people behind it, we realized that we could be part of something bigger than we ever imagined.

The possibilities of the immediate future and these next few years are boundless, and my mind races as I think about the impact we – the little group called Taylor’s Tale that my mom and I and a group of women who don’t like to take “no” for an answer founded in a mishmash circle of couches and ottomans and chairs over pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches – could have – directly or indirectly – on millions of people.

That’s what drives my mind.

But in my heart, I’ll always be driven by my love for “T.”


To Believe

By Laura Edwards

The following post is part of a blog hop organized by the R.A.R.E. Project to raise awareness of World Rare Disease Day (February 29).

On the morning of July 24, 2006, my parents sat stone-still in an office in Charlotte, NC as a genetics expert explained that their 7-year-old daughter, Taylor, had been born with something called infantile neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis (INCL), a form of Batten disease. The doctor prescribed family trips, fun activities, etc. – anything to help make happy memories while there was still time. The disorder was fatal and had no cure.

An hour later, my brother, husband, and I answered my parents’ distress call and joined them at their house. While Taylor sat in her classroom at school, unaware of the tragically flawed single bead on the single gene out of the thousands of genes in her DNA, the rest of us sat on the floor of my parents’ bedroom, wrapped in each others’ arms, soaked in each others’ tears.

Another hour passed. The sun scaled the cloudless blue sky and baked the mid-summer Carolina landscape. We wordlessly walked to my SUV, drove to Taylor’s school, loaded her into the back seat and headed to her occupational therapist’s office. During her appointment, the five of us sat huddled in the car with the windows rolled down, unable to move. The July heat rose from the asphalt in shimmering waves. And then, without warning, the shock that had frozen our resolve melted away.

In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, we’d been unable to see past the doctor’s prescribed happy memories program. Unable to believe. Happy memories are nice. But for our family, they just wouldn’t cut it. That’s why we decided – as a team – to fight the monster that haunted Taylor’s DNA. “No cure” didn’t cut it, and we made no apologies for our demanding ways. And at that very moment – in that oven-like car – the spirit that eventually became a non-profit organization called Taylor’s Tale was born.

Taylor's family

How many things do we take for granted today that were once considered impossible?

Ancient Egyptians wrote of “electric fish” almost 5,000 years before Benjamin Franklin attached a metal key to a damp kite string and flew the kite in a stormy sky. About 100 years later, Thomas Edison opened a lab in New Jersey, where he built the first incandescent electric lamp. The first telegraph was an iron wire. Today, we can have conversations with people on the other side of the globe. The first computer was the size of a warehouse. Now, smart phones are more powerful than those computers.

On December 14, 1903, Wilbur Wright flew an airplane over the sands of Kitty Hawk, NC for a whopping 3.5 seconds. The plane was constructed of wood and canvas and had a 12-horsepower engine. Sixty-six years later, men landed on the moon, and fighter jets flew across the sky at more than twice the speed of sound.

In the first half of the 20th century, frequent polio epidemics swept across the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people. But a vaccine developed in the 1950s reduced that number to around 1,000 per year. For much of human history, the elderly or weak had no answer for illnesses as simple as the common cold. But an accidental discovery in the 1940s – the antibiotic penicillin – has since saved millions of lives.

In 1998, two siblings were diagnosed with a rare, genetic disorder called Pompe disease. Doctors told their parents the children likely had just months to live. It wasn’t just that they hadn’t caught the disease early enough. The disease was so rare, in fact, that no scientist had even bothered to explore possible treatments for it.

Those parents were John and Aileen Crowley. Their story became The Cure, an award-winning book that later inspired the movie Extraordinary Measures. Before the story made its way to the big screen, though, it made its way to my mom, Sharon King, who shared it with a group of about 10 women – who, on a sunny day in late 2006, each took a copy of The Cure and enlisted in my mom’s newly created army with one mission: to fight Batten disease.

Years after doctors thought they’d be gone, the Crowleys’ kids, Megan and Patrick, are still fighting. And so are we.

As a matter of fact, I’ve never once looked back or considered quitting since the day my family made that promise to each other in a hot car or the day just a few months later when my mom – our fearless leader – sounded her battle cry over a crate of hardcover copies of The Cure. And while I know we have an uphill battle in our quest to save my sister Taylor’s life and make the world a better place for all those who suffer from a rare disease, I still believe.

Because to truly believe is to understand the difference between impossible and undiscovered.




World Rare Disease Day is February 29 – thirty days from today. Thirty is a significant number because:

  • Thirty million Americans have a rare disease – that’s more than the total number of people living with cancer WORLDWIDE (28 million according to the Livestrong Foundation)!
  • Thirty percent of children with a rare disease will die by their fifth birthday.
To hear more shocking statistics and blog hop to read more stories of people fighting rare diseases, click here.