When Elizabeth Terry developed a strange rash-like condition on her neck, her mother did what most mothers would do—schedule appointments with the pediatrician, change laundry detergents, and try to determine why her child was having a reaction to an undetermined assailant.
But it wasn’t an allergic reaction, it was a genetic condition that was later diagnosed as pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), a genetic, slow-progressive disorder that affects the connective soft tissue of the body, causing loose, wrinkly skin. It can eventually result in vision loss and heart disease.
It was only by chance that the Terry family lived a few houses down from a doctor who was familiar with the rare disease. Elizabeth’s mother, Sharon, took her to the appointment, along with Elizabeth’s younger brother Ian, in the hopes that he could make an accurate diagnosis. “Pseudoxanthoma elasticum,” he said, and then he glanced at Ian. “And he has it, too.” A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.
An official diagnosis of PXE
With an official diagnosis, Sharon and her husband, Patrick, could look for research to understand the disease better, as well as doctors and treatments. Unfortunately, the research at the time predicted the siblings would soon succumb to the illness.
“My mom and dad remember the Christmas of 1994 as the worst year of their lives because they thought both of their kids were dying,” Ian said. “Elizabeth and I remember that Christmas as the best of our lives because we got all the presents we could ask for.”
Over time, Patrick and Sharon decided that if the research on PXE wasn’t accurate, they would help mobilize patients, families, and researchers to increase understanding of the disease. The couple founded PXE International to accelerate research for treatment.
“She didn’t want other people to go through the fear that they went through,” Ian said. “Believing their kids were dying based on research that’s not remotely accurate.”
A model of shared research and advocacy
The organization contacted a researcher at Jefferson Medical College to share their vision—a patient registry led by the advocacy group that would conduct research.
“He kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, sure, bring me 400 people, and we can start the research.’” Ian said. It was a seemingly tall order for such a rare disease. “A year later, they had put together a group with about 2,000 to 3,000 people who had PXE.”
After growing up at PXE patient conferences and meeting others with the disease, Ian said it was a natural extension of his upbringing that he would move into advocacy himself. Now the senior user experience researcher for Luna, he is also invested in the collaborative work between Luna and PXE International.
Research begins by knowing the right questions to ask
“Currently, the PXE study has more than 1,000 participants, and we’ve recently completed a biomarker study on Luna,” he says, contemplating how far the community-led research of the organization has progressed since its founding.
“In the early days, PXE International conducted a study that was entirely in-person,” Ian says. “We’ve gone from filling out forms to registering 1,000 people on Luna and publishing our research soon, in a matter of months.”
One of the insights that have come to light through the registry is the appearance of modifier genes in PXE. The disease is defined by mutations in the ABCC6 gene, but the registry is finding some patients instead have mutations in the ENPP1 gene, as well as others.
“All of this interesting information we’ve been finding with Luna has previously been obscured this whole time because researchers haven’t been asking the right questions. You only get answers to the questions you know to ask.”
Sharon Terry explains it simply as a way to find answers more easily. “There is a popular cartoon of a person searching for their keys under a lamp post. The keys are right outside the circle of light. Luna allows PXE International to look where the keys are, rather than where the place that the light is already illuminating. If we know how to ask the right questions, we can get to the answers. Luna unleashes our power to ask the right questions and get to solutions faster and less expensive.”
Luna’s suite of tools and services connects communities with researchers to accelerate health discoveries. With participation from more than 180 countries and communities advancing causes including disease-specific, public health, environmental, and emerging interests, Luna empowers these collectives to gather a wide range of data — health records, lived experience, disease history, genomics, and more – for research.
Luna gives academia and industry everything they need from engagement with study participants to data analysis across multiple modalities using a common data model. The platform is compliant with clinical regulatory requirements and international consumer data privacy laws.
By providing privacy-protected individuals a way to continually engage, Luna transforms the traditional patient-disconnected database into a dynamic, longitudinal discovery environment where researchers, industry, and community leaders can leverage a range of tools to surface insights and trends, study disease natural history and biomarkers, and enroll in clinical studies and trials.