Our Dream is Coming True

By Laura King Edwards

I’m thrilled to share news of an incredible milestone achieved last week: FDA clearance of an investigational new drug (IND) application for a novel, one-time gene therapy to treat CLN1 disease (a form of Batten disease). This gives Abeona Therapeutics the green light to begin a Phase 1/2 clinical trial evaluating the treatment in patients. You can read the entire press release on Abeona’s website here.

Though we’re proud of everything we’ve done for children and others like Taylor, this is why we founded Taylor’s Tale more than a decade ago: to spearhead and enable the development of a viable treatment for CLN1 disease. So many called it an impossible mission, but we believed enough to try, even after it became clear Taylor wouldn’t survive long enough to benefit from such an achievement. The photo above was taken in the lab of Dr. Steven Gray, our partner and friend who developed the technology, on the day we celebrated the first birthday of mice treated with his innovative gene therapy approach. It was a happy day and a sign of more good things to come. 

We’re grateful for Steve as well as Ale Rozenberg, who played an instrumental role in moving Steve’s work forward, and the entire team at Abeona Therapeutics for all they’ve done to guide it to the clinical stage. Thanks also to you, our donors, friends and volunteers, for your gifts of love, money and time. Our dream is coming true, but we couldn’t have done it alone. 

Though this is a significant win, our work is far from complete, and I hope you’ll stay on the journey with us. To learn how you can continue supporting Taylor’s Tale, send us a note.


Global Genes Summit Unites Rare Disease Voices

By Judy Mayer

You might assume that a summit dedicated to rare disease would be a negative experience, perhaps even bordering on tragic. You would be wrong.

The Global Genes RARE Patient Advocacy Summit held in Huntington Beach, California, on September 24-25 illustrates the positive energy that defines the rare disease community. Some people showed up in wheelchairs, while others had masks across their mouths and noses. One teenage girl brought her service dog, and one woman brought her oxygen tank.

While rare diseases create a seemingly endless variety of challenges, the summit participants all share the determination to help others and to leave no stone unturned to improve the lives of rare disease patients.  continue reading →


Today, We Win

By Laura Edwards

Today, I tuned into a live webcast of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) ‘s discussion of gene therapy for giant axonal neuropathy (GAN) on the NIH campus in Washington. The RAC meeting was a big step in the approval process for the GAN work funded by our friends at Hannah’s Hope Fund to make it to human clinical trial later this year; it’s also very important for the Batten disease work Taylor’s Tale is co-funding at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center, because our project is based on the GAN studies.

On that webcast, I watched two amazing scientists explain the science behind their work, answer tough questions and make a strong case for moving forward. I’ve met a lot of experts in the near-seven years since we started this fight, but I know without a doubt that people with GAN and infantile and late infantile Batten disease have two of the best working for them at UNC. Dr . Jude Samulski and Dr. Steven Gray are fantastic scientists, and they understand the world of families like mine. Kids like Hannah and Taylor are in their minds when they’re in the lab, and I think that’s part of what drives them to be so good at what they do.

I also watched two women who are incredible advocates, fundraisers and, yes – mothers – deliver speeches I will never forget. I’ve met a lot of mothers, but I don’t think a rare disease has ever met a tougher opponent than Lori Sames or Sharon King. Though my mom and Lori, Hannah’s mom and founder of Hannah’s Hope Fund, are different in many ways, they are similar in that they looked their child’s rare disease with no known treatment in the face and said, “You will NOT defeat me. I will NOT sit back and let you take my child without a fight.” They refused to “live everyday with the knowledge that the consequence of doing nothing is sure and certain death.” And because of the choice they made, people like Hannah and Taylor have a light at the end of the tunnel.

…live everyday with the knowledge that the consequence of doing nothing is sure and certain death.

I feel honored and privileged to know and work with all of these amazing people. Big things are in store because of their wisdom, dedication and courage. I am saddened by the reality of my own sister’s decline but inspired by the possibilities for the future and our potential to help build a better world for people with genetic diseases. Today, the RAC committee granted our friends approval to march forward in their quest to launch the first human clinical trial for GAN later this year. You can be sure that we’ll be working to make certain Batten disease is not far behind.

I believe!


When the Eruption is Over

By Laura Edwards

It is not easy to paint a picture of Batten disease for people who have never seen it before. If you wish to paint with a large brush, you can tell them that children born with Batten disease never survive it; that it is total destruction; like a molten wave of lava and volcanic rock and ash.

Batten disease is not easy for most people to understand, but everyone can see that Taylor is blind. The destruction reached her eyes first. They are still beautiful and rare, the color of the caramel inside a Milky Way bar and framed by impossibly long lashes. But they lost their sparkle long ago.

Mom and Taylor at Crater LakeFive years ago this past January, a clinical trial coordinator brought my sister’s honey blonde hair to us in a Ziploc bag as we waited in a chilly waiting room in Oregon, thousands of miles from our home on the East Coast. Down the hall, a surgeon drilled eight holes into my sister’s skull and gave her hope. Not life, but hope.

For the next several years, my parents and Taylor made frequent return trips to Oregon. Once, they rented a car and drove south to Crater Lake, one of our country’s pristine natural wonders.

More than half a century ago, Freeman Tilden, said to be the grandfather of park interpretation, wrote a text, “Interpreting our Heritage,” that is still used to educate rangers today. One of the essays holds special meaning for us.

The essay, “That Elderly Schoolma’am Nature,” tells the story of a park naturalist meeting a man just inside the rim of Crater Lake. The naturalist can sense that something is different about the visitor from the moment he sees him but only comes to the determination that he is blind after noticing the man’s very dark glasses and putting all of the clues together.

And then, the visitor asks the naturalist to describe the lake to him. But how do you describe one of the world’s most stunning lakes to a man who cannot see?

The naturalist asks the man to take off his gloves, so that he can take his hands and move them around the crater model and describe its shape and depth and skyline and the curious, cone-shaped island in the middle. But how do you describe the blue of its water – a blue that has no equal – to someone who has not seen blue in many long years?

The visitor remembers the blue of the sky from his childhood. The blue of Crater Lake is nothing like the blue of the sky. But in his mind and his heart, he experiences the wonders of Crater Lake more fully than the naturalist could have ever imagined. And as he walks away, the naturalist realizes that the visitor “had extended his power of seeing – which was an achievement beyond price,” and that “We are all of us somewhat blind, even those who believe their eyesight is faultless.”

I love so many things about this story. My dad, who shares my love of national parks, gave a copy of it to Mom and me several years ago, and I’ve held onto it ever since. And my wise mother, who now leads Taylor’s Tale into an exciting future of new partnerships and boundless possibilities, shared Tilden’s essay with me again this week, urging me to apply the story toward our journey in our fight against Batten disease.

“We are all of us somewhat blind, even those who believe their eyesight is faultless.”

Because, as Mom reminded me, we embarked on this journey with our eyes focused directly on beating Batten disease. Our experience, though, has afforded us peripheral vision. We now understand the connection between all rare diseases – so many of which do not have a single approved treatment – and the millions battling for their lives. And just as the park naturalist and the blind man learned from one another, we, as fellow fighters and advocates, can learn from each other and support each other – and by doing so, we can become more efficient and effective. We will never reach our goals if we fight our battles in our own disease silos.

There is a very rare disorder called giant axonal neuropathy, or GAN. It is an inherited, recessive disease that first appears in early childhood. It results in nerve death and quadriplegia, and it is always fatal. The incidence is unknown, but it probably affects fewer than 100 people in the world.

Undeterred by these odds, the family of a little girl named Hannah decided to fight GAN head-on. In  2008, Lori and Matt Sames founded Hannah’s Hope Fund in their daughter’s honor. That same year, Hannah’s Hope began funding gene therapy for GAN at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center under Dr. Steven Gray. The clinical trial is expected to begin later this year.

Two months ago, Taylor’s Tale and five partners announced funding for gene therapy for infantile and late infantile Batten disease at UNC, also under Dr. Gray. Our project is following in the footsteps of the GAN work that is on the brink of clinical trial. And Lori’s fight for her daughter could very well help lead to a treatment for kids like my sister. Dr. Gray plans to use the same gene vector and methods to treat Batten disease. And if the GAN trial is successful, we will, in Lori’s words, “move like wildfire to apply this to the lives of children with Batten.”

“…move like wildfire to apply this to the lives of children with Batten.”

Together, we can reach our goals. There are so many of us in the rare disease community, and there is strength in numbers. That is an advantage, but it is also the saddest thing of all. There are TOO MANY of us. We’ll change that when we play to our strength by finding treatments for people like Hannah and Taylor.

I think about how the landscape in central Oregon must have looked on the day of the volcanic eruption that created the most beautiful lake in the world. I know that many dedicated people, from the team at UNC to those working to ensure that their science is supported, will move like wildfire to outrun the death and destruction of diseases like Batten and GAN.

And every night, when another day’s work is done, I dream about how beautiful the lake can be when the eruption is over.


The Ghost of Laurel Hill

By Laura Edwards

photo (7)Yesterday morning, I woke with the sun to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler in my little sister’s honor for the fourth consecutive year.

I’ve already collected four race medals for Taylor in 2013, but this one is special. The Tar Heel 10 Miler was just the second competitive race I ever entered; I paid the entry fee for the April 2010 edition not long after watching my sister – blind and suffering from a rare, fatal brain disease – jog across the finish line of Charlotte’s Jingle Jog and Girls on the Run 5Ks on one end of a running buddy’s guiding rope and the wings of her own courage.

The Girls on the Run 5K, staged on a sun-drenched, happy day in May 2009, was Taylor’s second race. It was also her last.

Batten disease has stolen so much from Taylor since it crept into her life that the word “unfair” doesn’t begin to do the job. The ability to run is a precious gift that too many of us take for granted, but my sister has lost many more valuable things.

I wish I could make Batten disease go away. I wish I could work magic – go back in time and give Taylor two good copies of the gene that causes Batten disease or even one good copy (which would make her a healthy carrier, like me). But I can’t.

So I share her story in my own words – both spoken and written. I help support the people who have the knowledge to find answers for children like her – people like Steven Gray, PhD of UNC’s Gene Therapy Center, to which Taylor’s Tale awarded a two-year grant earlier this year.

And I run.

On Saturday morning, I followed the brick sidewalks to the football stadium nestled in the trees on the same campus where Dr. Gray works his magic for children like my sister and where I earned my undergraduate degree. I lined up on the track at field level with 3,253 other runners. When the gun sounded at 7:30, I found an opening in the crowd and sprinted through the stadium tunnel and into my 10-mile mind game.

The Tar Heel 10 Miler, set mostly on the gorgeous UNC campus, has some tough sections, but none come close to Laurel Hill, the 200-foot vertical gain over the course of about one mile at the 8.5-mile mark. It’s so difficult that the race organizers place separate timing mats at the bottom and top and hand out special awards just for the hill, and many self-respecting athletes speed-walk it. I’ve never walked, but I’ve come close.

end of tar heel 2013 I went into Saturday’s race riding a streak of four straight personal records (PRs) for the half marathon, 10 miler, 5K and 10K that started at the Thunder Road Half Marathon in Charlotte last November. Even though I’d beaten my previous 10 miler record by two minutes just two months earlier at a race in Charlotte, I was determined to beat it again.

But when I reached the first Laurel Hill timing mat, things didn’t look good. My quadriceps burned, and worse – I felt winded. I never get winded. I was riding a 7:45/mile pace through the first 8.5 miles, and it’d taken a lot out of me.

As I started the climb, a voice in my head told me it wasn’t my day. I shouldn’t have eaten the sweet potato fries at Top of the Hill the previous night. I shouldn’t have stayed up till midnight watching the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. As I wheezed my way up those 200 vertical feet, I told myself that WHEN I cross the finish line isn’t important to Taylor (which is true). As my Garmin watch beeped its “Behind Pace” beep, again and again…I began to write my post-Tar Heel 10 Miler blog post in my head. I called it, “I Lost My PR and Found My Truth on Laurel Hill.” I talked to myself over my wheezing. “You can do this,” I breathed. “Forget the stupid PR. Just RUN.”

But then, something happened. My quads loosened. The tightness in my chest melted away. The houses perched at the top of Laurel Hill came into view.

For most of the race, I used my Garmin as my guide. I ran for Taylor, but I ran more for myself.

The moment I understood that is when I left the Ghost of Laurel Hill behind.

It seemed like just moments later that the stadium reappeared. I sprinted into the tunnel, down the track and across the finish line.

When I did, the clock read 1:20:48.

I beat my PR for 10 miles by almost two full minutes and ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler four minutes faster than ever before. I finished in the top 16 percent of 3,253 runners. And when I crossed that finish line, I felt as if I could fly.

Almost like I had wings.


World Rare Disease Day 2013

By Laura Edwards

This morning, about 80 people joined Taylor’s Tale as we recognized World Rare Disease Day and made an exciting announcement about the fight against Batten disease.

I shared our family’s journey and introduced our featured guest. Following is a modified version of my comments.

My “little” sister is 14. We’re the same height.

But I still remember the day she came home from the hospital. I raced my then-best friend and now-husband up the stairs to peer over her crib (he got there first).

I remember how my sister learned to read as a toddler.

I remember 5-year-old Taylor. She seemed perfect. Beautiful. Intelligent. Healthy. Spunky. She kept our brother on his toes. The world – and Stephen – were hers to conquer.

But 6-year-old Taylor couldn’t handle first grade math. Addition and subtraction left her in tears.

Seven-year-old Taylor couldn’t find her way in dim places.

Just three weeks before my sister’s eighth birthday, a monster called Batten disease burst into our world and shattered it into a thousand little pieces.

Batten disease is a rare, inherited disorder that affects mainly children. To get it, kids have to inherit a “bad copy” of the gene from each of their parents. I got one good copy and one bad copy, so I’m a carrier; that means that I’m healthy but could pass the gene on to my children. My brother is a carrier, too.

Taylor got two bad copies.

With one roll of the genetic dice, our little sister got a fatal disease.

Fourteen-year-old Taylor lives in a world that’s always dark. She can’t learn like other kids. She has seizures. She loves to sing, but soon, Batten disease will steal her speech. Even now, she only has a few words. I can ask my sister if she had a good day at school, but we can’t talk about it.

Taylor ran two 5K races with the help of a sighted running buddy through the Girls on the Run program at her school. But that was four long years ago. Soon, my sister will be in a wheelchair.

Batten disease steals the lives of children.

It upsets the natural order of things.

Children aren’t supposed to have their dreams snatched away from them by a monster like Batten disease.

They aren’t supposed to die.

Taylor was diagnosed with infantile Batten disease on July 24, 2006.

I still remember the long moment we all shared in the floor of my parents’ dark bedroom; wrapped in each others’ arms; soaked in each others’ tears.

The doctor who delivered that news told my parents to take her home and make happy memories.

We don’t have anything against happy memories. But while Batten disease is in our DNA, going down without a fight is NOT.

Every day with Batten disease is a hard day. Still, in the near-seven years since the day our lives changed forever, we followed the doctor’s orders. We made our fair share of happy memories.

But we made time for fighting, too.

With the help of good friends, we founded a non-profit organization. We raised nearly half a million dollars for potentially life-saving research and promoted awareness of Batten disease. We advocated for increased support for the rare disease community.

We partnered with other groups that share our mission; American organizations such as the Batten Disease Support & Research Association and EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases, and international organizations such as the Global Genes Project.

And along the way, we met MANY families like ours.

One in 10 Americans suffers from a rare disease.

Chances are, you know someone fighting his or her own battle.

To borrow words from my mom, diseases like Batten are rare…but hope should not be.

That’s why I’m pleased to share reason for new hope with you today.

On behalf of Taylor’s Tale, I’m excited to announce that we’ve joined an international coalition of organizations founded by families like ours – families that refused to go down without a fight.

Together, we’ll fund gene therapy for two forms of Batten disease. This revolutionary work will take place right here in our home state at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The goal of this study is to pave the way for a human clinical trial.

I’ve watched this disease try to rob Taylor of EVERYTHING. I’ve prepared myself for the reality that I will likely outlive my little sister.

Bottom line – I HATE Batten disease. But in seven difficult, painful years, I’ve witnessed great progress. I’ve NEVER stopped believing.

And I believe in the ability of THIS project at UNC to help save the lives of children like Taylor.

Its leader is an expert in AAV vector design and gene therapy. He graduated from Auburn University and earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UNC, specializing in central nervous system gene therapy.  His work focuses on the development of treatments for neurological diseases. He’s been published in multiple journals and mentioned in high-profile publications and blogs. His work is chronicled on the pages of a 2012 book that explores gene therapy as the next frontier through the stories of real patients and families.  The doors of his lab are decorated with photos of the children for whom he and his colleagues go to work every day.

The leader of the Global Gene Transfer for Batten Disease project is Steven Gray, PhD.

To learn more about this exciting initiative, click here.

group at Rare Disease Day event


Notes from London: Day Four

By Laura Edwards

pathToday marks the end of the 13th International Conference on Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses (NCL) at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College. That means this is also my last “Notes from London” post.

Mom walked this path from her dorm room to the conference center and back again many a time in the past few days. She submitted her final update to me just before the closing banquet and her final climb up the path.

I learned a lot about the setting for this conference – so unlike the nondescript, cookie-cutter American hotels to which we’re so accustomed, via Mom’s final update.

“I went to breakfast the first day and haven’t been back since,” she writes. “No problem with the food – best porridge ever – but I’ve been trying to catch up on sleep. As for the other meals…this is a college, so the proportions are gigantic and I’ve not suffered for lack of carbs. The traditional “pub” dinner was interesting. Fish and chips (HUGE piece of fried fish! May I have mine grilled, please? What???), mashed potatoes, Toad in the Hole (ah, no).” At the end, they served Treacle Tart, a “very traditional” dessert. “Oh, I’ve had that before – it’s Chess Pie!” Mom said, to which the server responded, “No, it’s Treacle Tart.” Last night’s theme was curry – curried chicken, curried lamb, curried rice, curried veggies. Mom didn’t comment on the curry – but she went out of her way to say she enjoyed the salad bar!

Mom wanted to be on time for this morning’s session highlighting emerging and novel therapies for the various forms of NCL (Batten disease), so she ran up the hill. Most of the therapies focused on infantile NCL (the form that affects Taylor) and late infantile NCL, both of which are caused by deficiencies in soluable enzymes. The following therapies were of particular interest for Mom:

  • Dr. Mark Sands from Washington University in St. Louis described his recently published project demonstrating the synergistic effect of combining gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for infantile NCL. The data is incredible, and the work MUST go forward.
  • Dr. Sandra Hofmann of the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas presented data for her enzyme replacement therapy project. To date, Taylor’s Tale has directly contributed $230,000 to this specific project. In the coming year, Dr. Hofmann and Dr. Sands will collaborate in order to expand the reach of their projects.
  • Dr. Steven Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented a gene therapy platform that may work for multiple Batten disease gene therapy approaches (i.e. infantile AND late infantile NCL). Interestingly, it requires an intrathecal injection – which is a routine, non-surgical procedure with minimal complications. Dr. Gray’s work is very interesting, and as a North Carolina-based non-profit organization, we love that it is happening in our own backyard.
  • Several experts presented on enzyme replacement therapy for late infantile NCL. This work is very close to clinical trial. They showed videos of the long-haired dachshunds in the canine study (yes – dachshunds, too, get Batten disease). The dogs were in the end-stages of the disease and, of course, very sick. They suffered from persistent myoclonic jerks, mental abnormalities, loss of visual tracking, inability to eat…the list goes on. It painted a heartbreaking picture, and Mom saw many faces turn away from the screen and heard many moans of distress among the audience. And yet – the terrible images on the screen did not represent a Hollywood-manufactured horror film. They represented the very real picture of children with this disease. If it breaks our hearts to see it in an animal, what are we going to do about getting behind the incredible scientists who gathered in London this week and help them end the horrors happening in children like my sister, Taylor?
In closing, I leave you with a final note from my mom, who – as I’ve said many times before – is one of the world’s greatest warriors for these children. We must continue to support the amazing work of the Mark Sands, Sandra Hofmanns and Steven Grays of the world. But we need the magic of people like my mom to help turn their great ideas into the miracle we so desperately need.

I have so much hope for the future. Many thanks to those at King’s College London, the Batten Disease Family Association based here in the UK, and others for organizing this tremendously valuable conference. The 14th International Conference on Neuronal Ceroid Lipofusinoses (Batten Disease) will be held at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina. Best of luck to all of the scientists as they head back to their labs. It is with great hope that I look forward to meeting you all again in Argentina to hear of successes in the battle against Batten. I, and many other families, are counting on you.


Notes from London: Day Two

By Laura Edwards

Springtime in London at Royal HollowayMom had an incredibly busy day in London.

She ran into Steven Gray, a researcher in the Gene Therapy Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (yes, my fellow North Carolinians – the world of Batten disease is a dark and scary one, but there is promise – and it is right here in our own backyard!). Mom and my uncle David, a neurosurgeon in Greensboro, and I all drove to Chapel Hill to have dinner with Dr. Gray last year; as we left the restaurant that night, I knew we’d meet again.

Mom met Arlene Drack, an ophthalmologist from the University of Iowa. Mom saw Dr. Drack’s poster and knew she just had to talk to her; Dr. Drack is investigating the retinal degeneration that leads to blindness in Batten disease. Children with Batten disease face so much loss – the vision loss alone is incredibly devastating. These kids are already fighting to walk, to express themselves in ways most of us take for granted, to socially engage with their peers – but the blindness drops a heavy curtain, ensuring their separation from so much that makes life “normal.” If the blindness alone could be stopped, kids like Taylor would have a much greater quality of life. For six fleeting weeks in 2006, we thought Taylor had retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – an incurable, progressive eye disease that causes loss of central and peripheral vision. I remember how our world came crashing down on us the day we got the RP diagnosis. For six weeks, RP was the worst thing in the world.

She spoke to Andy Tincu and Bruce Vuillemenot, two talented scientists with BioMarin; they are working on a promising therapy for late infantile Batten disease.

It is apparent that science has made great progress since Taylor’s diagnosis nearly six years ago…and yet, there is much left to do. Rare diseases need more funding; they need the voice of the people. They have been overlooked for far too long. “Thank goodness for these scientists fighting a good fight to find therapies for patients with rare diseases – many of them children!” Mom writes.

Mom’s next words to me aren’t her last, but they’ve stuck with me more than the rest.

“I’m not fighting hard enough,” she says, calling out others as “incredible warriors who have made a difference. I’m humbled.”

I have an extraordinary amount of respect for all of the other warriors brave enough to wage this war on Batten disease and all rare diseases. I, too, am humbled.

But I have a difficult time letting my mother get by thinking she’s not fighting hard enough. She’s the greatest warrior I’ve ever known – a warrior willing to cross oceans and even galaxies for children – if only she had a spaceship.