A look at how social media helps connect patients with rare diseases

Photo by Jason Howie

Photo by Jason Howie

If you suffer from a very rare disease, getting the proper diagnosis can be an arduous journey. But a bigger challenge may be the feeling of isolation, since there may not be any support groups where you can connect to someone who is going through the same thing.

That was the situation the Bigelow family found themselves, and they turned to social media for the solution.

Bo Bigelow knew that his six-year-old daughter Tess had a genetic mutation called USP7. She also had global developmental delays in basic functions such as walking and talking, causing her to function at the level of an 18-month year old. Was USP7 the cause of her developmental delays?

Bigelow spread the word about his daughter’s genetic condition to find out, posting on Facebook, Twitter and a personal website with the plea to “help us find others like Tess.” A friend of the family also posted on Reddit, where it was read within 24 hours by a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine who was studying USP7. His research group had already identified seven children similarly affected by the same genetic mutation, and they were about to publish an article about it in Molecular Cell.

Tess may become part of future clinical trials at Baylor, but the researchers also connected the Bigelows to the other seven families. “These days there are ribbons and awareness-weeks for so many diseases,” Bigelow said in a recent KQED Science story, “but when yours is ultra-rare, you feel completed isolated. You feel like you’re never going to hear another person say, ‘Us too!’ And being connected to other families changes all that.”

The KQED piece goes on to explain:

“Patients or parents like Tess’ who are seeking answers to seemingly unsolvable medical mysteries have new tools to reach out, not only on social media, but in crowdsourcing websites like CrowdMed, a subscription service for people seeking answers to medical conundrums. At CrowdMed, people who have symptoms but have yet to find a diagnosis seek opinions from the site’s “medical detectives,” only some of whom are medical professionals.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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