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Neurological Disorders

How Rare Disease United These Mothers in the Fight for a Cure

Photos: Courtesy of CACNA1A Foundation /Lisa Manaster/Shanna Tolbert/Carolyn Anderson

“It’s called static encephalopathy. Her brain is not developing. Just go home and love her.”

“There’s something wrong; we just don’t know what.” 

“Your daughter has failed to thrive. We don’t know why. Research has not caught up.” 

These are statements three mothers heard from their neurologists about their infant daughters who were having seizures and exhibiting neurodevelopmental delays. Upon hearing these frightening words, they vowed not to sit idly by, but to figure out the underlying causes affecting their children. 

Ultimately, all three girls were diagnosed with CACNA1A, a rare genetic disease on the 19th chromosome that affects how the calcium channels function in their brains.  

Mutations or variants on the CACNA1A gene cause a variety of symptoms, including ataxia, epilepsy, developmental disabilities, eye movement disorders, migraines, intellectual disabilities and cerebellar atrophy. 

The clock is ticking for many people with a CACNA1A mutation — as their cerebellums shrink, they lose motor coordination and balance. 

Finding a community

Lisa Manaster, Shanna Tolbert, and Carolyn Anderson met virtually through a parent Facebook group. Given the lack of available information about the disease, this group has been their primary source of guidance and support. 

The diagnosis of a CACNA1A mutation requires patients to see specialists across multiple medical disciplines to manage the disease’s manifestations, including ophthalmologists, developmental pediatricians, epileptologists and specialists in ataxia and migraines. 

Manaster, Tolbert, and Anderson immersed themselves in medical literature, inspired to learn as much as possible about CACNA1A. With fragmented information available about mutations on the gene, the three motivated mothers began to piece together a highly complex puzzle.   

Raising awareness

In June, Manaster, Tolbert, and Anderson formally established the CACNA1A Foundation to raise awareness and help find a cure for this rare degenerative neurological disease. 

One of the first steps in accelerating research is gathering data on as many people with CACNA1A variants as can be found. Dr. Wendy Chung from Columbia University is leading the way, designing a natural history study that will track symptoms, disease progression and establish standards of care across medical disciplines. The study will provide a vehicle by which researchers, pharmaceutical and biotech companies can access vetted patients for clinical trials. 

“Natural history studies provide a critical baseline to which we can compare outcomes when we assess the efficacy of new treatments,” Dr. Chung said.  

In addition, the CACNA1A Foundation has assembled a team of top medical advisors to support its cause. Through this foundation, these determined women are raising funds to support translational research as scientists believe a cure is possible. 

These three mothers are on a mission to accelerate life-changing research for their children and all those with pathogenic variants in their CACNA1A gene.

Learn more at www.cacna1a.org

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