Why is RAREfest so important?
The vast majority of conferences I attend are within the academic bubble. You’re talking to other scientists and speaking in jargon. Presenting at an event like RAREfest, you have to think harder about what you’re going to say. Not only are you talking to scientists, but also patients and their families. For me as an academic and a scientist, this is always a gut check. Scientists can be myopic when they’re sitting in the lab moving small volumes of colourless liquids around. This a reminder that at the end of the test tube there is a human being and we’re trying to stop their suffering.
RAREfest brings together the people doing the research with the people suffering from the problem. This provides more perspective and I think drives better science.
Patients affected by rare diseases say they’ve been all but forgotten during the pandemic. Why do you think this is?
The problem with rare diseases is like the name says, they’re rare. These conditions have a huge impact on the individual affected, but on a societal level, very little. When you’re going out and about talking about a condition, your words will influence the patients and the families affected, but for the average person, when you say the condition only affects 1 out of 15,000 people, they don’t feel concerned.
Human beings are inherently selfish because we’re interested in self-preservation. With a limited number of neurons in our brains, we want to worry about what impacts the majority of society rather than what impacts a small proportion of society. This is the problem. This is the value of having Cambridge Rare Disease Network and events surrounding rare disease because while each disease is, by its definition, rare, these events allow you to build critical mass. You can begin to group the conditions together.
For instance, each of the individual genetic conditions that result in severe obesity is going to be vanishingly rare. But once you group them all together, they explain a significant proportion, around 1-2%, of obesity.
What are the greatest challenges facing RD patients?
It’s all about money. How do you convince someone to fund your study of a rare disease? If you’re a charity, how to you get the man on the street to part with his hard-earned bucks? And, how do you persuade a government funder or big charity that this is an important disease to study, compared to the big four – cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. I’m not trying to compare the severity or the relevance here, but it is a challenge to frame your argument that the study of rare diseases is important.