Destroy mutant mitochondrial DNA with MRC-MBU at RAREfest22

The strategic mission of the MBU is to understand mitochondrial biology in health and disease, and to exploit this understanding to develop new therapies and improve human health.

Alex Whitworth is a Group Leader at the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit (MRC-MBU) and leads one of the 9 teams within it. Penny Peck is the Communications and Postgraduate Manager, supporting the postgraduate students and coordinating the programme of public engagement activities.

Financed largely by the Medical Research Council, Alex and his researchers focus on understanding the fundamental biology of mitochondria, a particular part of the cell, that sometimes go wrong and cause disease. As he explained:

“The emphasis of our research is mitochondria. Mitochondria are a particular part of the cell found in almost every cell of the body and best known for being the powerhouses of the cell – the cellular batteries. They are a real hub for metabolic processes that convert the food that we eat into actual useable energy within our bodies. So, directly or indirectly, they influence virtually every single process that goes on within our bodies. Because of this, problems with mitochondria often affect our most active tissues, such as the brain, our muscles and heart.”
Alex Whitworth

Group Leader

The unit’s role encompasses understanding many of the basic functions of mitochondria, and in particular investigating how this contributes to or directly causes a range of diseases. Therefore, the researchers are working on areas such as heart disease and stroke. Alex’s research is focussed on neurodegenerative diseases and typically the more common neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A very special feature of mitochondria is that they have their own small genome,(DNA) which is susceptible to mutation. So, there are some very specific types of diseases which are caused by the mutation of the mitochondrial genome. While these tend to be relatively rare types of diseases, natural variations in the mitochondrial genome also influence a wide range of more common conditions.

Another interesting phenomenon of the mitochondrial genome is that it is transmitted exclusively through the maternal line, so you inherit all your mitochondria DNA from your mother. As opposed to half the copies of the nuclear DNA coming from mum and half from dad. This establishes an interesting clinical solution for mitochondrial diseases that show an unusual inheritance pattern. As Alex explains:

“Advances that have happened in the last few years are aimed at tackling some of these mitochondrial diseases, including one solution coined the ‘3-person baby’. As you have genetic contributions from mum and dad, for the majority of the genome, and mum only for the mitochondria genome, if there is a problem only with the mitochondria genome but the rest of the genome is perfectly fine, you could simply replace the mitochondrial genome with a good set. For example, using in vitro fertilisation, you can replace the mitochondria that are bad with mitochondria which are good from another maternal donor. This then means mum, dad and a third person contribute to the baby. Hence the name ’3-person baby’. In theory this should be able to cure a lot of these diseases. And excitingly the UK is one of the leading centres in the world that is pioneering this technology. ”

Alex and Penny are excited to bring a special game to RAREfest22 which enables them to talk about the research described above and allow people to better understand how mitochondria have their own genome, and explain how one of the therapeutic angles is to try and remove the bad mitochondria and the kinds of technology the research teams in their unit have been developing. As Penny explains:

At RAREfest we will have a number of specialist biology researchers on hand to help with our game and explain the science! We will have mitochondria looking like how they appear in our cells, along with ‘good’ mitochondrial DNA (green balls) mixed with ‘bad’ mitochondrial DNA (black balls), and the challenge will be to place all the bad in our mitochondrial DNA dustbin!

Both Alex and Penny wish to showcase that this is an exciting time for mitochondrial research and translational science. They both firmly believe that researchers are on the cusp of now being truly able to translate the research and technological developments into viable therapeutic approaches. And whilst there is still some way to go regarding safety and efficacy, it is about hope and knowing that they can make a real difference in the delivery of solutions in the foreseeable future.

So come and see Alex, Penny and their team at RAREFest22 – learn and have fun on the day!

Rare Youth Revolution at RAREfest22

Chelsea Wong is the Youth Coordinator for Rare Youth Revolution (RYR). Rare Youth Revolution is a global news and opinion, digital magazine platform, dedicated to powering up the voices of the young people in the rare disease community. They aim to bring quality news, for young people, by young people.

They are part of, but different to, their main magazine, Rare Revolution which focusses on adults living with a rare condition. Rare Youth Revolution instead, focusses on young people living with a rare disease as that is an entirely different audience. Their aim is to amplify their voices and give them a safe space to feel heard. As Chelsea explains:

We want young people to feel supported and safe in telling their story and to know they are being heard and listened to. Rare Youth Revolution is about empowerment and inspiring open and authentic stories told by young people for young people.

Chelsea, in her role as Youth Coordinator and also living with a rare condition herself is well-placed to coordinate and support the wide range of opportunities for these young people. She can help them raise awareness about their specific condition in a range of formats from writing to video, art, and social media campaigns. Chelsea is delighted that one of their initiatives called Rare Talks provides an opportunity for people living with the same rare disease to discuss, through video, the surrounding issues of living with the same condition. It also gives them the chance to share similarities and differences of their lives, despite living with the same rare disease.

“I was trying to find that perfect balance for me, being able to express myself in a work environment, and work well whilst living with my condition. So, this seemed like the perfect fit, so I just went for it and here I am!”
Chelsea Wong

Youth co-ordinator

Exhibiting at RAREfest22

One of Chelsea’s first tasks was to sort out their presence at RAREfest22. She will be contributing in two ways. The first is a session called Rare Monologues, where the RYR team will work in collaboration with Medics4Rare Diseases. Four people from the RYR team will perform a short monologue speaking about difficult conversations. This includes medical gaslighting, trying to put your foot through the door, advocating for yourself in medical appointments and trying to be heard. All topics can be difficult to speak aloud and be incredibly overwhelming, especially for young people. This impactful session invites these young advocates to speak to the room and feel listened to.

RARE youth Revolution Experience

Secondly, Chelsea is bringing an interactive session as an exhibitor. Her stand will showcase the human body with numbers on it. Behind each number will be an audio of symptoms relating to that specific area. Plus, it provides further information of a lived experience by a young person about their actual condition rather than just the symptom itself. Chelsea explained the rationale:

I have tried really hard not just to make it educational, but also interactive and easy to follow. I also wanted to make sure it was very personal. When people listen to these audios, they will be listening to an actual person who is talking about their condition. I want the public to see the variety of rare conditions, but also how young people differ and go about their lives in a different way once they have adapted to those symptoms, since they have been diagnosed.

Come and see Chelsea and her Youth Team at RAREfest22 and see for yourself the issues that matter to young people living with a rare disease and how young people live positively with their condition!

Finding a needle in a haystack

Dr Kate Downes is the Clinical Scientist Lead for the East Genomic Laboratory Hub. Genomic medicine is a rapidly growing and dynamic field, and we are increasingly finding
more answers to help us provide more results to patients and their families.

The East Genomic Laboratory Hub (GLH) provides genetic testing for patients in the East Midland and East Anglia regions for both rare disease and cancer as part of the NHS Genomic Medicine Service. As the Rare Disease Clinical Scientist Lead, Kate works across the three genetic laboratories within the region at Cambridge, Leicester and Nottingham. All three laboratories receive rare disease test orders from doctors and healthcare professionals for patients who have a suspected genetic disorder. Genetic testing may be performed in house, with technologists generating genetic data, bioinformatics teams analysing results and Clinical Scientist interpreting the genetic variants identified and generating clinical results reports. As Kate explains, for some specialist genetic tests, the East GLH sends DNA to one of the other six GLHs in England to perform genetic testing and the East GLH also receives DNA for testing for specialist testing performed at the Cambridge Genomics Laboratory. In this way, the seven GLHs work in partnership to offer comprehensive genomic testing for all NHS patients.

This is a thrilling time to be working in the world of genomics, as explained by Kate.

“We are using new technologies and we are introducing new technologies all the time to perform testing in patient samples to identify the cause of their rare disease and clinical symptoms. We are translating new techniques, tests and analysis methods alongside using the latest understanding of new genes and disorders. We can now use big databases of genetic data from population and patient cohorts generated across the world. These resources help the Clinical Scientists interpret a new genetic variant we have identified in a patient. The questions we ask is: has this genetic variant been seen before in another patient with similar clinical symptoms? If the answer is yes then it is likely that this genetic variant is the cause of the patient’s disorder.”

“Together the introduction of new technologies and analysis methods with increased data sharing across the world help is provide more and more genetic diagnosis to patients.”
Dr Kate Downes

Clinical Scientist Lead

Having been an academic scientist for most of her career, Kate decided to move into the NHS. Supported by colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the NHS Cambridge Genomics laboratory, she was trained and gained experience that enabled her to register as a Clinical Scientist. She has worked in the Cambridge Genomics Laboratory as a Clinical Scientist for three years now and has welcomed the opportunity to take on her current role as the East GLH Clinical Scientist lead.

Kate loves her job, working with a huge team of people who are enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable in lots of different areas, located across the East region.


Dr Kate Downes
Genomics Lab CUH Hospital

My day to day role is really varied. I get to speak with members of the East GLH team within the Cambridge, Nottingham and Leicester laboratories, I also take part in national discussions to improve and standardise genomic services and improve patient pathways. And why do I love doing that? The reason I am in this role is to provide the best possible service for patients and their families right now, but also importantly to bring in new technologies, processes and knowledge into the laboratory to improve testing strategies in the future.

Come and join Kate and the East GLH team at RAREfest22, as they help people understand the genetics of rare disease. Do you fancy a career in health science?

We would really like to inspire young people to consider a career in healthcare science within the NHS. So at RAREfest22 we will have some fun activities alongside the opportunity to ask questions for our Clinical Scientists, Genetic Technologists and Bioinformaticians. We are planning to entertain and hopefully educate and inspire the next generation of healthcare

Launching ‘Days of Rare’ photography exhibition at RAREfest22

Launching ‘Days of Rare’ photography exhibition at RAREfest22

Same but Different was born out of Ceridwen’s experience of having a child with a rare disease. Combining her passion for photography and her considerable knowledge in marketing Same but Different was established in 2015.

The Real You

Focussing on the positive and raising awareness of the person behind the rare disease disability has enabled Same but Different to create art exhibitions that put people’s lived experiences at the heart of the story. Ceridwen and her team utilise photography, film and written work to create stunning visual experiences to change attitudes and empower those affected.

I wanted to combine my passion for photography and knowledge of marketing in a way that helped highlight the person behind the rare disease rather than simply their condition.
Ceridwen Hughes

CEO, Same but Different

Unify, Celebrate, Share

Same but Different also provide support services and have launched a new online magazine Rarity Life that offers those affected by rare disease, disability and cancer the opportunity to create truly inclusive content, to unify collective experience and to celebrate and share difference.

Rarity Life hopes to bring something for everybody and its content ranges from informative to visually stimulating – a magazine that can be dipped into or you can immerse yourself into the power and beauty of the imagery.

For me there’s a huge pressure every time I pick up the camera and either video or take photographs of the person. I really want to do the very best for them, to create art that people want to engage with. I believe that every person that I meet inspires me to keep improving until we produce work that engages, is accepted and understood with those wider audiences.

UK launch of Days of Rare…

At RAREfest22, Ceridwen will be bringing her exhibition ‘Days of Rare’ which looks at the quirky elements for people living with rare diseases. This exhibition aims to draw in the viewer into truly wanting to find out more about rare diseases and the people living with them. As Ceridwen explains:

It’s all about looking and finding the unexpected. Through looking at these images it will hopefully ignite a passion for the public to find out more about how rare diseases impact on an individual in a way that they hadn’t understood or known about.  I really hope that they will enjoy looking at the images and finding out more about the people behind them.

Expect the Unexpected!

So come along and see the wonderful exhibition and be prepared to be stunned by beautiful photographs and learn more about the people snapped by the lens!

Dr Richard Gorman – animating the world of rare diseases

Dr Richard Gorman – animating the world of rare diseases

People with rare conditions often feel their voices are lost in the wind, vying for attention against other better-known diseases. Creating memorable, unique ways of communicating stories can help rare voices get heard.

Animation, memorability, insight

With a background in social science and as a member of the haemophilia community, Dr Rich Gorman is interested in people’s lived experiences of healthcare. Together with his colleagues Bobbie Farsides and Tony Gammidge, their project pushed the boundaries of academia, showcasing the great potential in arts-based methods for creating ways to evoke patient experiences.

Securing funding from The Wellcome Trust, the project invited rare families to participate in creative mediums like stop-motion animation and collage. It revealed innovative ways that messages can travel to others through emotions, insight, and memorability.

Poignantly, it revealed the impact of taking such messages back to clinical colleagues and policy members in translating the subjective experiences of those with rare diseases. The collection of works has been showcased to Brighton and Sussex Medical students who revelled in the benefit of gaining a more holistic understanding of life with a rare disease.

“We found just how powerful and evocative the creative pieces produced by families with rare conditions can be in communicating the challenges and joys of daily life with a rare disease.”

Dr Richard Gorman

Project co-ordinator

Academia meets subjectivity

Publishing their project meant overcoming barriers in the typical confines of academia – like academic journal submission lengths and format. It highlighted the potential for arts-based methods and the challenges in expressing their impact in the scholarly sphere.

The project aimed to collaborate with participants, working with them at every step, maintaining receptive to creative mediums that were both effective and fun to partake in.

Vaila Morrison participated in the project alongside her daughter, who has KAT6A syndrome. She described the value of connecting with other rare families, sharing ideas and mutual understandings.

 “An important part of the project has been expressing feelings not just around the rare condition itself, but also those evoked from navigating processes like obtaining a diagnosis, accessing healthcare, and the challenges surrounding this.”

Vaila Morrison

Project participant

At Rarefest22, the team will share some of the project’s spectacular artistic pieces, messages, and stories. They are excited to share some of the artistic pieces that the participants have created and to give them a wider platform

The collection of works provides an innovative means to help people outside the rare disease community understand more about what life can be like with a rare disease. There will also be an exciting opportunity to come and have a go!

Sensmart – providing multi-sensory solutions

Sensmart – providing multi-sensory solutions

Aisha Purvis has spent over ten years helping others in the health and social care sector. She has witnessed first-hand the multi-faceted challenges patients faced regarding malnutrition and dehydration.

Identifying challenges

During the pandemic, Aisha was completing her university placement as a mental health nurse. It was an immensely challenging time for those working in the health and social care sector. With over ten years of experience in the industry, she had developed for a keen eye for identifying current systems that weren’t effective and a passion for suggesting solutions. 

She witnessed first-hand the multi-faceted challenges patients faced regarding malnutrition and dehydration, exacerbated by staffing issues and the heart-wrenching events of the global pandemic.

For patients that are non-verbal, explaining their choices and preferences poses a huge obstacle. Aisha knew from her work as a care home manager and research as a student that 45% of patients admitted to the hospital risk malnutrition and dehydration.

Aisha also has a daughter diagnosed with Rett syndrome, which affects her MECP2 chromosome. Her daughter struggles with neurodevelopmental, communication, and motor difficulties.

“During a regression, my daughter would eat only pickled onion space raiders. I would come home every day to my blue-tongued little girl. I couldn’t bear to see my daughter struggle like I had seen my patients.”

Aisha Purvis

Founder , Sensmart

Cambridge Rare Disease Network - Sensmart - providing multi-sensory solutions 1

Suggesting solutions

Aisha came up with the idea of Sensmart and co-founded it with Alex Chikhani. Sensmart provides a multi-sensory experience, combining scent prompts which reflect an entire meal, texture touch, tactile images, braille, and personalised voice prompts.

The product aims to help patients engage in a meaningful activity whilst promoting choice and independence. The product’s tremendous attention to detail allows family members to customise auditory stimulation to reflect their voices. It also provides real-life textures like that of orange peel to enable patients to connect with their choices.

“We’re tackling not only the challenge of malnutrition and dehydration but also communication barriers, food waste, and the issue of healthy eating. We’re helping both the planet and people.”

Alex Chikhani

Co-founder, Sensmart


The idea highlights how those who are proactive in finding groundbreaking solutions in the rare community can have impacts rippling across multiple industries and conditions. Alex describes how various fields have already taken an interest in the product – from the private and public healthcare sectors to tourism and hospitality.

Join them at Rarefest22 for an interactive multi-sensory showcase. The team has devised various engaging, fun activities accessible to all. Be prepared to have your senses warped! Learn more about their exhibit at RAREfest22. 

Rishi Nag – combining passions to showcase science

Rishi Nag – combining passions to showcase science

During the pandemic, Rishi cumulated his passions for science, music, and learning to create Singing Science. Inspired by his broad spectrum of music taste, from heavy metal to the South American Charango, his dynamic project combines shows and songs, putting science’s presence into the wrapping paper of music and the visual arts.

A love for science

Rishi has been fascinated by science since childhood. He studied maths at university and focused on sound processing before working at the University of Cambridge, Department of Plant Sciences. There he trained as a Bioinformatician, supporting biologists with their endeavours through data processing.

His first song enunciated the work of the underappreciated Arabidopsis thaliana. A plant commonly used in the Plant Sciences department, its contribution is often lesser-known than that of beautiful roses and tulips.

Inspired by his passion for science, Rishi sought to continue curating melodies and performances designed to showcase the wonderful world around us and complex creatures we are.

“Combining catchy songs with scientific topics provides a means for all peoples to learn engagingly and creatively.”

Rishi Nag

Founder , Singing Science

Singing Science

Therein born was Singing Science, an edutainment project that offers a memorable and refreshing way to teach science. His audience can learn topics like Genetics, Evolution, and Inheritance through snappy soundbites. Singing Science uses novel tunes and catchy melodies to express highly interesting scientific subjects.

Genomics! The Musical!

Rishi has been expanding his project by teaching in schools and curating both songs and shows. The newest of which comprises Genomics! The Musical!

Genomics! The Musical! is a one-person show where the fundamentals of genes and our DNA are explained using a series of ‘musical mini-lectures’. Ideas are introduced with words and then developed with catchy songs performed with a video backdrop providing further insights into the science of what makes us us. All done with a light touch of humour to provide an ideal family edutainment show!

At Rarefest22, Singing Science will be showcasing Genomics! The Musical! Combining the basics of Genetics and the impacts on the rare disease community, the show provides an engaging way to familiarise yourself with key concepts – fit for all ages.

It will offer an exciting starting point for later talks and activities. Be prepared to sing along to the jolliest, most entertaining lesson you’ve ever had!

Cecily Morrison – Inclusive Design is About Taking a Disability-first Approach

Cecily Morrison – Inclusive Design is About Taking a Disability-first Approach

Cecily Morrison – Inclusive design

Cecily Morrison is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. She leads a multi-disciplinary team that innovates new technologies to enable people. Last month Cecily was awarded an MBE for services to inclusive design. She and her team are exhibiting at RAREfest20. More on that later, but first …

Congratulations on your MBE! How did that feel?

I was extremely pleased that inclusive design has been so clearly recognized. Inclusion is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is essential for a diverse set of people to take part in society. I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to make technology, working with amazing teams, that supports people with their inclusion.

What does Microsoft in Cambridge do in terms of inclusive design?

Inclusive Design is a really good way to innovate. By working with those with unique perspectives, it can help a team think about a problem in a different way that can benefit all. Our team is currently focused on building AI tech to help people who are blind or low vision better understand who is in their immediate vicinity.

What kind of products do you work on and what difference do they make?

One of the products specifically mentioned in the MBE award was Code Jumper – a physical programming language for teaching the basics of coding and computational thinking to children ages 7 – 11, regardless of their level of vision. This came about after engaging with a community of young blind and low vision people in Cambridge, a community that my son is now part of.  Coding is a key part of our curriculum, but it isn’t accessible to those who are blind or low vision. We wanted to build something that would allow children who are blind or low vision to code alongside their sighted peers.

Read more about how Code Jumper started.


 How does Microsoft work with people with accessibility challenges?

Microsoft believes in accessibility from the top down and the bottom up. Whether in research (like me) or in product, we work with people to understand their experiences now and in the future.

Why is inclusive design important and why is it often difficult to get products adapted?

I believe that we need to take a disability-first approach, not disability-last. If it works for those with disabilities, it is much easier to make it work for the mainstream. We are moving into the next phase of AI tech and I would highly encourage those with disabilities to get involved in disability-first datasets, such as

For technologies to reflect a diverse set of people, they must be trained on data of all of those people. Find out more here:

Microsoft logo
Melita Irving DNA Doc

What can people expect from the Microsoft booth at RAREfest20?

We will be showing some of our tech and giving you the chance to try out inclusive design. Whether it’s a tool you can bring as a patient to groups you work with, or as a student who wants to approach the world in a more inclusive way, there will be something for you to learn.

Every Cookie is Hope

Every Cookie is Hope

Every cookie is hope

Ten-year-old Dana from Boulder, Colorado, is no ordinary kid. In fact, she’s done something extraordinary in the quest to find treatments for rare diseases. What started out as a fundraiser to help her friend Mila has now turned into a lucrative non-profit cookie enterprise where every batch equals much needed cash for cures. At RAREfest20, Dana will lead a cookie decorating workshop and answer your questions. She hopes you’ll be inspired to get baking, too!

RAREfest saturday speaker Giles Yeo

How did Cookies for Cures start?
It started when I was 7. At speech therapy I made this amazing friend called Mila. She was really nice and really bubbly. We’d just talk and play together. When I found out she was sick with a rare and fatal disease called Batten, I just had to help her. Me and my mom came up with the idea to sells cookies. That’s how it started. We called it Cookies4Mila. The next year we decided to set up a non-profit called Cookies4Cures. So far, we’ve baked about 17,000 cookies and raised over $100,000. Each cookie is hope.

Why cookies?
Well, I’d never baked before, but I loved eating cookies. Originally, I thought I’d sell cold lemonade but that wouldn’t really work in the winter. We were planning to raise money all year round. Cookies were perfect, because you can eat cookies in the summer, in the winter, when it’s hot, when it’s cold. Who doesn’t love cookies?!

What’s been the response?
Surprisingly, a lot of people say they could never do what I’m doing, but I don’t think that’s true. We can all make a difference. You just need to start!

This is about raising money, but also awareness. Do you think you’re making a difference?
I’m not that well known, but I know I’ve made a difference to Mila’s life. We raised around $50,000 to pay for treatment and that prolonged her life.

How has Mila’s rare disease impacted on her?
She’s a completely different person to how she was when I met her. She can’t see, she can’t talk, she can’t walk, she can’t do so many of the things that she used to be able to do. It’s really tough.

What have you learnt as a result of your work over the last 3 years?

I have two other friends with rare diseases, Ollie and Ben. I’m not sure I’d know about rare diseases if some of my friends hadn’t got them. It’s made me realise that, as a whole, rare diseases aren’t that rare. Doing Cookies4Cures has made me less afraid to speak up and help my friends.

Who is your hero and why?
Greta Thunberg. She spoke up for what she believed was right and she doesn’t let anyone stop her!

Where’s your favourite place in the world and why?
I’m not entirely sure. Probably eating cookies! Mum has a rule on that we can’t eat any cookies until after a bake sale is done.

What is your greatest achievement?
Prolonging Mila’s life. That feels like the most important thing that ever happened. It let me enjoy more time with her.

What is your hope for rare disease?
I hope that one day there’s a treatment for every single rare disease, so no one has to suffer, or watch their friends die or get so sick that they can no longer recognise them.

Dana Perella Cookies for Cures
Dana Perella Cookies for PANS

A Puff of Smoke at RAREfest20: A comic book on being undiagnosed

A Puff of Smoke at RAREfest20: A comic book on being undiagnosed

Sarah Lippett will be talking about her book “Puff of Smoke” at RAREfest20

““Too often you’re seen as a number, rather than a human being. That needs
to change.” –
Sarah Lippett, Artist, Illustrator, Author and owner of two rare diseases

RAREfest saturday speaker Giles Yeo
If you are a young person on your diagnostic journey or you’ve travelled that path yourself or with a loved one, then you’ll want to check in with RAREfest20 exhibitor, Sarah Lippett. Why? Because Sarah, who has two rare diseases, knows better than anyone the impact of ‘not knowing’ and the frustration of misdiagnosis.

Sarah’s comic book memoir  ‘Puff of Smoke’ is all about the isolation of being undiagnosed. Her journey lasted from the age of seven to eighteen, a young lifetime of lengthy spells in hospital, lost friendships and missed opportunities. As an author and illustrator, Sarah wanted to create something that would give hope to young people on their diagnosis journeys – and raise awareness within medical circles.

Visit Sarah’s Crayonlegs exhibit at RAREfest20 – tickets here

At 12, Sarah was diagnosed with FSGS, a rare condition that causes scar tissue to develop on parts of the kidneys that filter waste from the blood. Not so rare. It actually affects 1 in 17,000 people. With medication, her condition stabilised long term.

Then, at 18, Sarah was also diagnosed with Moyamoya, which is far more unusual, affecting 1 in a million people in the UK. It causes the blood vessels to the brain to become narrowed, leading to paralysis and stroke. An operation all but cured this allowing her to live a full, busy life.

Last month, after sixteen years, Sarah’s FSGS symptoms returned, throwing her back to the uncertainty of her early years. It is a stark reminder of how uncertain life is with chronic illness and how dramatically life can change.

 “One minute I’m taking my health for granted, running marathons, travelling with work as an artist and writer, lecturing at university and publishing a second graphic novel with Penguin. Then suddenly, overnight, here I am with deteriorated kidney function. The disease is back and I’m suffering on high dosages of my treatment like when I was a child.”

Join Sarah at RAREfest20 to explore her exhibit and discover more about her diagnosis journey and her life since.  

“It’s a life I thought was in the past, but it’s different now. I’m an adult with responsibilities, a career and a real life. My mum and dad aren’t my carers anymore. I feel I have to be even stronger now but it’s very, very hard. In a way, the only silver lining is the pandemic. My condition would prevent me going onto the university campus, but thankfully I’m able to teach my students online. This gives me connection to the outside world, happiness and distraction. I don’t feel jealous that I’m missing out, because we’re all at home, restricted, and there’s something comforting in that. I’m taking pleasure in smaller things – walks around my new home of Portobello in Edinburgh and trying to remain hopeful that this is just temporary. It will pass.”

Who is your hero?
My mum and dad. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I would ever have got a diagnosis. They fought for me and never treated me any different to my siblings. Even when my body was out of control, they burned it into the back of my mind that I can do anything I want. I’ve lived my whole life with that positivity.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
Anywhere my husband and my dog are! I love Portobello Beach in Edinburgh. It’s incredibly
relaxing and calm. Scotland is stunning. It’s a wonderful place to live.

What is your greatest achievement?
Being a published author twice, against the background of my school life which was ‘You’ll never achieve anything!’ I also have a BA degree and an MA from the Royal College of Art, which I’m really proud of.

What is your hope for rare disease?
I hope that the community keeps growing and that awareness keeps growing. I hope the route to diagnosis gets shorter for everyone.

puff of smoke sarah lippett rarefest20

Dr Melita Irving- The DNA Doc at RAREfest20

Dr Melita Irving- The DNA Doc at RAREfest20

Known as the DNA doctor, Melita Irving is passionate about … well, DNA! She works as a consultant in clinical genetics at Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital, specialising in conditions that affect the skeleton. Last year Melita’s book ‘The Human DNA Manual’ was published by Haynes, covering everything from how DNA catches killers to identifying long-dead kings! Who’s the book for? Anyone with DNA!

DNA Doctors Melita Irving RAREfest20

At RAREfest20 Melita will be doing a live DNA extraction, not on a human (phew!) but on a strawberry. She’ll be interviewed by Dr Lucy Mackay from Medics4RareDiseases, a charity that drives an attitude change towards rare diseases amongst medical students and doctors
in training.

We caught up with Melita ahead of  RAREfest20 to talk all things DNA…

What does a genetic scientist actually do?
Genetics impacts upon every system in the body and affects everybody! The most common type of referral into the clinical genetics service is a child who is not meeting their developmental milestones. Maybe they’re not growing as expected. Maybe they look different. Maybe they have an abnormality, like a hole in the heart. The question needs to be asked: Is this child just unlucky or could there be one single explanation that accounts for everything – and could it be genetic? Being a genetic scientist is exactly like being a detective, looking for that key clue that leads you down the right path and not being confused by any red herrings that are thrown in the way.

How has technology changed the way rare diseases are diagnosed?
There are 20,000 genes, all of which can go wrong, and there are 8000 listed genetic disorders that are classed as rare diseases. Up until very recently we’ve been absolutely hamstrung by our ability to do genetic testing for diagnostic purposes. We used to put all the clues together, do our ‘best guess’ diagnosis, see if there’s a test available and then get that test done. After all that, you find you’ve been on the wrong path the whole time. So, you’d have to come back up that path and go down another one. Rinse and repeat. It could be a very long drawn out process that never led to any answers.

However, we are now in an era where we can do high throughput genetic testing. We are able to look at all the genes in one go and focus all our attention on those we think are relevant to the story. You can go down ten different paths at the same time! We are anticipating that in the next year or so the speed at which we get to diagnosis through genetic testing will be much quicker. That’s all down to technology and whole genome sequencing.

Why are rare diseases so hard to diagnose?
Not many people know about rare diseases and there are so many of them, plus there’s no one type. You might have the same diagnosis as someone else, but the format of your rare disease is completely different.

Another problem is at medical school we are frequently told not to worry about rare diseases and concentrate on more common conditions. This means rare diseases are never fully appreciated and that bit of the ‘doctor brain’ never gets to develop. Medics4RareDiseases are pushing for more learning at medical school and in early stage careers, so rare diseases become something you must think about.

Melita Irving DNA Doc

Technology has opened up the door for a much more rapid diagnostic system for rare disease, which will mean they will be pushed up the agenda and that will encourage greater awareness.

Who is your hero and why?

Rosalind Franklin. An unsung hero who doggedly worked away at discovering the structure of DNA, didn’t get recognition for her amazing work, but didn’t make a fuss about it. I’ve seen the photograph she took that led to the understanding of DNA as a double helix. It’s a wonderful thing to behold.

Where’s your favourite place in the world and why?
This year I didn’t get to go to any the events I usually do, but I did manage to get a holiday! I went to Rhodes in Greece and it reminded me how much I love all things Greek! The sky, the sea, the food, the language. Just lying on the Mediterranean in the sunshine with the prospect of a delicious lunch on the beach is probably one of my favourite places to be.

What is your greatest achievement?
The book! I’m delighted with how it’s turned out. It looks so pretty and is accessible to people who might not know anything about DNA. If I can impart my love of DNA to other people, that would be a very fine achievement.

What are your hopes for the future of rare disease?
With all the improvements in how rare diseases are diagnosed, it would be really great if the next step was finding treatments that will make things better for patients with rare diseases. That’s where I’d like to see the future going.

Journey of Hope: Ceridwen Hughes at RAREfest20

Journey of Hope: Ceridwen Hughes at RAREfest20

“The importance of diagnosis cannot be underestimated. Not only do you feel like you have something you can put a name to, but it opens doors, not least the ability to connect with others who have that shared experience and knowledge.”
Ceridwen Hughes, Same but Different

RAREfest saturday speaker Giles Yeo

Founder of Same but Different, Ceridwen Hughes, will lead a webinar at RAREfest20 all about the diagnostic journeys faced by parents of children with rare diseases. It’s based on the critically acclaimed film ‘Journey of Hope’, which Ceridwen directed. Here she talks to us about the importance of diagnosis, her hopes and her heroes.

RAREfest20 logo

As a parent of a child with a rare disease, what does RAREfest20 mean to you – and your child?
Awareness about Rare Diseases and the celebration of this wonderful community is really important. RAREfest is a brilliant opportunity to bring people together and share experiences, whilst also educating one another and the wider community about all things rare!

From your research and your own experience, what frustrations do parents face in their diagnostic journey? 
In our film, ‘Journey of Hope’, I think Iggy’s mum, Sarah, explained it perfectly. She said, “The diagnosis certainly doesn’t give us simplicity, but it gives us a starting point. It gives us a starting point to begin to understand what Iggy needs. Before that, we had nothing.”

 Our own diagnostic journey was relatively short. It took 11 months, but this felt like a long time to us. Sadly, for so many, it can take many more years.  The importance of diagnosis cannot be underestimated. Not only do you feel like you have something you can put a name to, but it opens doors, not least the ability to connect with others who have that shared experience and knowledge.  When I chat with parents as part of my work, we immediately have that shared bond, even if our child’s rare disease is very different. You just ‘get it’. 

There are so many barriers in place before you get a diagnosis, including from some medical professionals.  We recently gave a talk to medics. Whilst grabbing a coffee, a consultant said that he often saw patients in his clinic and, even if he knew what their condition was likely to be, he did not see a value in telling them.  This arrogance and lack of understanding needs to be addressed.  It is one of the main drivers for creating the ‘Journey of Hope’.  We wanted to open up dialogue about the importance of a diagnosis whilst also highlighting it is not the answer to all your problems. 

Does life become easier with a diagnosis?
From our experience one of the things that is important when you get a diagnosis is that you don’t only look at disease-specific information.  The answer to a problem often comes from other sources and other diseases.  Through our Rare Navigator service, we support families with any rare disease. It has been helpful in sharing ideas or solutions that others, often with very different diseases, have found works for them.  The knowledge within the rare disease community is vast and it is important it is shared across the spectrums.


You have spoken to and photographed numerous people with rare diseases. What have you learnt about the rare disease community?
Over the years I have spoken to so many people affected by rare disease, including parents, individuals affected and other close relatives. The word that jumps out is resilience.  The strength to keep on getting back up, even after the most incredibly difficult times, is awe inspiring. The rare disease community is always on hand to provide information, support and a big hug when needed.

Dr Giles Yeo says the biggest challenge is convincing people that understanding rare diseases benefits the whole of society. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Finding treatments for rare diseases that can be used for more common ailments is just one example.  In a world where people are often judged on what they look like rather than accepted for who they are, it makes it even more important that society is aware of rare diseases. Recognising the challenges people go through will ultimately lead to a kinder, more compassionate community. 

 One of the reasons I set up ‘Same but Different’ was to capture the person behind the condition rather than simply show their disability.  We use photography, video and written narratives that give the individual a stronger voice in their community.  Often, it’s the first time they have shared their very personal experiences. It has really helped others understand their challenges.

Who is your hero and why?
I am incredibly lucky that each day I get to work with my heroes. I know it sounds a bit corny, but my heroes are each and every parent whose child gets a rare disease diagnosis and has to carry on and fight for their child to access the treatments and support they need.  These are the parents who have to smile when they are condescended to. These are the ones who have to smile when their heart is shattering because, once again, their child is overlooked or underestimated. 

Where’s your favourite place in the world and why?
It has to be Finnish Lapland, a small ski village called Levi which is far above the arctic circle.  We had the most magical week’s holiday there.  It was the first time we went on a husky ride through the snowy forest at -21 and Isaac fell asleep on a sledge whilst we looked for northern lights.  A close second would have to be Tromso in Norway, again a magical place in the winter.

What is your greatest achievement?
Picking up the camera for the first time and having the courage to follow my dreams and change career in my 40s.  I would also say setting up an MDT for Moebius syndrome when one did not exist before.

What is your hope for rare disease?
I would hope that one day it is recognised for not being rare and, with that, people may be more willing to look at the overall impact these diseases have on health, education and the community as a whole.

Cambridge Rare Disease Network - Journey of Hope: Ceridwen Hughes at RAREfest20 2