Category Archives: Research

Home Blood Phe Monitor: A PKU Pregger’s Dream

During the 2014 National PKU Alliance Conference this past summer, an update was given on the development of a home phe monitor, a device that would allow people to check their blood phe levels immediately from home. In this video interview, produced by Kevin Alexander, Dr. Tom Franklin, chair of the National PKU Alliance Scientific Advisory Board, says that after receiving 128 proposals from scientists representing seven different countries, nine were selected in April 2014 for Phase II and were required to submit detailed concepts for the monitor by July 2014.

Unfortunately, a single proposal won’t be selected for moving forward with development of a prototype until December 2015. Even then nothing is guaranteed, but nonetheless, allow me to explain why an at-home phe monitoring device would be my ‘dream come true.’

Many of my readers are aware that I’m pregnant with my first child and as I prepare to hit the 30-week mark this weekend, I’m well beyond the point in my pregnancy when Madison has started to process phe for me. In order to make sure my current phe allotment is still appropriate, I use a lancing device to gather a blood sample every Sunday, allow it to dry overnight and then mail it in Monday morning. Yet, as I write this blog entry, the last phe result I received was on Aug. 19 for a level I took on Aug. 10. For those of you who are counting, that was more than three weeks ago. Neurotic, Type-A-Personality folks like myself can’t help but worry about how much has changed in that time span.

When my blood work leaves my mailbox Monday morning, it’s probably fair to estimate a two-day delivery time with the U.S. Postal Service. So what happens once it reaches its destination to cause it to be delayed so much longer? Well, in my case, the level likely arrives at the hospital warehouse where it is processed for an internal delivery system. In some cases, clinics decide to hold a patient’s level until they have enough in-hand to justify the cost of processing them (most clinics will place a maternal PKU patient on a priority list). And then there’s just plain old human error. Levels are lost, stuck in interdepartmental tube delivery systems and who knows what else!

To be clear, I’m not trying to place blame on any one person or organization. Heck, even I realize that my decision to transfer care to another state also plays a role in this conundrum. The point is there are many reasons why the turnaround for blood phe results moves slower than molasses. No doubt, the ability to use a home phe monitor would vastly improve many lives in the PKU community.

Until that day, I’ll continue to play catch-up with how fast Madison grows and the protein she needs for that development. I’ve decided to overnight delivery of my levels (which, by the way, costs me $20 a pop). I also have started to send them directly to my clinic, bypassing the hospital’s warehouse; ultimately hoping that all of this will help improve the situation.

I’m curious to hear if others in the PKU community have had similar frustrations with the time it takes to get back blood test results. Have you and your clinic come up with other unique ways to improve the process for submitting levels through the mail?

–NM

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Filed under Conferences & Events, Lo-pro Diet Management, Maternal PKU, Research, Technology

Do ‘protective mutations’ hold a cure for PKU?

That’s the question I asked after watching a TED Talk from Stephen Friend, co-founder of Sage Bionetworks. During the presentation, Friend describes an ambitious initiative called the Resilience Project: A Search for Unexpected Heroes, which flips traditional scientific research on its head by suggesting that rather than studying those people who are already sick, we should be studying those people science tells us would be sick with a rare disease, but for some reason have remained healthy.

The premise of the talk, titled The hunt for “unexpected genetic heroes,” asks whether having a closer look at the protective mutations of these “resilient” individuals would provide a pathway for developing new treatments or preventing diseases all together. Here’s the full video presentation:

Naturally, upon finishing the video, I immediately thought the Resilience Project might have some relevance to PKU research. That’s because there are a few, rare cases in the PKU community of individuals who are high-functioning, off-diet phenylketonuria patients, meaning that despite having what is medically considered to be dangerously high phenylalanine levels, these folks are still able to function with a high-level of intellect and lead normal, productive lives.

Friend’s TED Talk ends with a call to action—for individuals to become engaged by voluntarily submitting their DNA to the project—but there was little detail on how to go about doing so. After finding the Resilience Project’s website, and scrolling through much of its content, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that phenylketonuria (PAH) is one of the 195 metabolic gene disorders the group is looking to study. Pretty cool, huh?

After becoming disconnected from the PKU community for the 18 years that I was off-diet, I never did understand why I seemed to function just fine. But as I started to delve back into the world of PKU in 2008, I quickly started to hear in various circles about a mutation theory called the blood-brain barrier. Virginia Schuett’s PKU News has a good description for explaining the blood-brain barrier’s role in why some PKU patients are less affected by high-phe levels than others.

“There is the occasional individual with PKU, who despite poor control of the diet and chronic marked elevations of blood phe seems to escape any significant neurological impairment. It is suspected that such individuals may be protected at the level of the “blood-brain barrier.” The blood-brain barrier serves to protect the brain from exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in the bloodstream.”

Although I cannot confirm that the blood-brain barrier mutation is what the folks at the Resilience Project are specifically studying with regard to PKU, I would not be surprised if it was at least on their radar.

The Resilience Project defines an “unexpected hero” as someone who “has reached the age of 40–by which time a genetic disease known to emerge in childhood should have manifested–but who does not bear the symptoms of disease.” I’m not yet 40, but I’m seriously considering trying to participate in the project nonetheless.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Would you willingly participate given the chance of new treatments or even a cure for PKU? Or does the thought of submitting your DNA have your internal privacy alarms sounding off? Either way, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. And if anyone from the PKU medical community is reading this post, please also chime in!

–NM

P.S. The 2008 PKU News article referenced above discussed the blood-brain barrier in the context of an emerging therapy called Large Neutral Amino Acids, or LNAAs. The 2014 National PKU Alliance Conference in Salt Lake City July 10-13 includes a session presented by Dr. Eddy A. van der Zee from the University of Groningen who has received a NPKUA research grant to study LNAA Supplementation in PKU Mice.

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Grab your walking shoes–spring has arrived!

Walk for PKU, PKU Research, Donate to PKU

The trees are turning green, flowers are in bloom and the birds have started singing again. Here in the South spring has sprung and that also means that lots of planning is underway for the Tennessee PKU Foundation’s two spring fundraisers–a walk for PKU in Nashville on May 3 and another taking place in Knoxville on May 17.

As they have done in years past, these two walks—as well as a third organized for Memphis, Tenn., later in the fall—are organized to raise money in support of PKU research. Since its inception, the Tennessee PKU Foundation has raised more than $63,400 for individual researchers and those supported through the National PKU Alliance. Other funds raised by the foundation stay within the state to support camp and conference scholarships as well as newborn welcome packets.

On a national level, the National PKU Alliance’s Scientific Advisory Committee—comprised of physicians, researchers and clinicians—reviews proposals submitted by researchers who are working in the inherited metabolic disease field and awards grants to those committed to advancing PKU treatments and ultimately developing a cure. Those researchers receiving grants from the National PKU Alliance in 2014 were just recently announced. You can read the full list of recipients on the nonprofit’s website, but two examples include Dr. Shawn Christ, associate professor of psychological sciences and associate director of the University of Missouri’s Brain Imaging Center, and Dr. Kristen Skvorak from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Christ is examining the effects of PKU on gray matter structures in the brain, and Skvorak has been pursing ground-breaking experiments in liver cell transplants for PKU in a mouse model.

Several other U.S. states are also member organizations of the National PKU Alliance and if there’s one nearby your home, I encourage you to support them in their own individual fundraising efforts. However, if you do not have an affiliation with any of these groups but still feel so moved to also support PKU research, you can contribute online via the Tennessee PKU Foundation’s walk registration website. Even if you cannot attend one of these events in person, you can still play a role in supporting PKU research.

–NM

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What’s in a name? A closer look at changing the name of PKU

Changing the name of PKU, PKU name change, from PKU to PAH deficiency

Recently, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics released new guidelines in support of lifelong treatment for PKU. Among other recommendations, the organization also suggested the name of the disease be changed from PKU, short for phenylketonuria, to phenylalanine hydroxylase deficiency, or PAH deficiency.

The ACMG acknowledges that there are several ways to describe PKU severity and specifically calls-out at least two naming conventions that are commonly used:

  1. PKU, the more severe diagnosis where untreated patients have blood phe levels greater than 1,200 μmol/l or 20 mg/dl and,
  2. hyperphenylalaninemia, which represents a milder diagnosis where untreated patients are still above what’s considered normal but less than 1,200 μmol/l or 20 mg/dl.

After the National Institutes of Health introduced the term hyperphenylalaninemia in 2000, we started seeing an increasing number of clinicians, patients and families of patients refer to the first, more severe category as classical PKU. The new name PAH deficiency, the ACMG proposes, would eliminate the practice of using the blood phe level as the standard of classification by representing all of these variations.

The communications and marketing professional in me knows that over the life of a product or business, there may be many reasons the decision is made to change a brand name including mergers/acquisitions, changing markets, new leadership, and to even eliminate a negative reputation.

In the case of PKU and the ACMG’s recommended name change, the decision was made because PAH deficiency more accurately describes what the authors refer to as the “spectrum of severity.” But, it’s worth noting that descriptive names can also have their own subset of issues. Brand names that are too literal can become forgetful or inaccurate over time. Names that are too complex or long can impact a person’s ability to pronounce or remember it.

What’s more, we also know that the use of medical jargon can make it difficult for individuals to absorb and process health-related information. So what will the impact be when folks within the PKU community try to make the transition to phenylalanine hydroxylase deficiency? When phenylketonuria was introduced into the vernacular in 1934, it likely created its own source of confusion in the patient community. Yet, there is something to be said for brand recognition. Overtime, the brand familiarity of PKU has become stronger within the community and it’s likely that many PKU patients have a strong association with the term PKU, and to some extent, identify themselves with the now-outdated term.

It will take time for PAH deficiency to be wholly embraced. Even I have started to wonder, “What does this name change do to the title of my blog?” I’m not quite ready to makeover PKU Parlor, but I can acknowledge that with the name change there could be some benefits. For example, wrapping-up the varying levels of PKU severity under one umbrella may go a long way for securing universal medical food and formula coverage. Lawmakers and other decision makers will be less inclined to offer coverage to a severe group of PKU patients while simultaneously denying or restricting access to those with milder cases.

So as a member of the PKU PAH deficiency community, how do you feel about the name change? Are you reluctant to make the transition? Or do you embrace the new name and find yourself excited for the fresh start? I’d like to hear from you and what your reaction was to the suggested name change. Also, if you ever thought of alternative names for PKU, be sure to share them in the comments field below.

–NM

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Setting a standard for the treatment of PKU

new PKU guidelines, PKU standards, dietary and medical recommendations for PKU

There’s some wonderful news floating around the PKU community this week: The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, in partnership with Genetic Metabolic Dieticians International, have released the first-ever, specific medical and dietary guidelines for the treatment of PKU. These guidelines are based upon the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 2000 Consensus Conference for PKU, the 2012 NIH Scientific Review Conference and a review by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

If you aren’t familiar with the healthcare industry, you may be asking yourself, “What’s the difference between medical consensus and medical guidelines?” Last year (in 2013), the NIH retired its consensus development program, but since it was created in 1977, the program created agreed-upon statements interpreting what was currently known about a medical condition as well as what research gaps might still exist. These statements—like the one the NIH issued in 2000 for the treatment of PKU—are then used to develop medical guidelines. Your medical team located at your local PKU clinic will use these guidelines to support the decisions they make related to your care. The introduction of these guidelines will undoubtedly play a critical role in ensuring that all patients in the U.S. and Canada receive the highest quality of care and treatment in the management of their PKU.

Listed below are the key recommendations from the new guidelines as summarized by the National PKU Alliance. Be sure to visit the New Guidelines for PKU section on their website to read a full summary or to download the new guidelines for the medical and dietary management of PKU.

  • The guidelines refer to PKU as phenylalanine hydroxylase (PHA) deficiency.
  • The treatment of PKU is lifelong with a goal of maintaining blood PHE levels in the range of 120-360 umol/l (2-6 mg/dl) in patients of all ages for life.
  • Patients treated within the early weeks of life with initial good metabolic control, but who lose that control in later childhood or as an adult, may experience both reversible and irreversible neuropsychiatric consequences.
  • PAH genotyping (i.e. mutation analysis) is recommended for improved therapy planning.
  • Medical foods (formula and foods modified to be low in protein) are medically necessary for people living with PKU and should be regarded as medications.
  • Any combination of therapies (medical foods, Kuvan, etc) that improve a patient’s blood PHE levels is appropriate and should be individualized.
  • Reduction of blood PHE, increase in PHE tolerance or improvement in clinical symptoms of PKU are all valid indications to continue a particular therapy.
  • Genetic counseling should be provided as an ongoing process for individuals with PKU and their families.
  • Due to an increased risk for neurocognitive and psychological issues, regular mental health monitoring is warranted. A number of screening tests are recommended to identify those in need of further assessment.
  • Blood PHE should be monitored at a consistent time during the day, preferably 2-3 hours after eating.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll take a closer look at some of the specific issues outlined within the guidelines and discuss them in more detail here on PKU Parlor. I hope you’ll stop by and chime-in with your thoughts too!

–NM

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PKU patients and caregivers can participate in study for evaluating device linked to PEG-PAL

If you live in the San Francisco Bay-area and either have PKU or care for someone with PKU, there is an opportunity to participate in a paid usability study for a potential medication delivery device.

The device at the center of the usability study would used to administer PEG-PAL, an injectable enzyme substitution developed by BioMarin Pharmaceutical that has shown to lower phe levels in PKU mice. According to the National PKU Alliance, PEG-PAL recently completed Phase 2 FDA clinical studies and all patients enrolled in that phase had experienced some measurable decrease in blood phenylalanine levels. BioMarin is moving forward with the third and final phase that would ultimately bring PEG-PAL to a commercial status, which also explains the recent interest in figuring out just how patients will react to the process of injecting themselves with the drug.

Interface Analysis Associates, the California-based human behavior consultancy firm that has partnered with BioMarin for this study, will offer two 30-minute sessions in early September 2013 and will pay participants $150 to learn how the device works and perform mock injections. There will be no needle pricks and no actual medication administered. Participants will be asked to provide feedback on their experience and preferences.

Usability Study for PKU Patients and Caregivers

Click image to enlarge.

I was asked to participate in the study but because of the 2,500 miles between East Tennessee and the West Coast I had to respectfully decline. Nonetheless, it’s a great opportunity for others in the PKU community to directly impact the design and functionality of how this exciting new treatment will be delivered. It was also smart of BioMarin to initiate this usability study – not just from a bottom-line perspective but also because patients will have an investment in the product, the opportunity to suggest design improvements, and will likely become more satisfied with how it works.

If you’re interested in participating in the study, be sure to sign-up quickly. September is right around the corner!

–NM

P.S. If you do participate in the study, you’ll have to return to PKU Parlor and let us all know how it went! 🙂

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Hair Loss experienced by PKU patients returning to the low-protein diet is temporary

There is some good news to report back to my blog followers: hair loss related to a return to the low-protein diet is temporary.

Earlier this month, I published a post titled Losing it: Both literally and figuratively over PKU and hair loss and during that post, I mentioned that PKU patients experiencing significant hair loss after returning to the PKU diet may want to see a specialist for insight behind the cause. I decided to take my own advice and scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist (I was referred to a dermatologist because of the profession’s specialization in matters related to the epidermis, or skin).

The dermatologist diagnosed my hair loss as telogen effluvium, or excessive hair shedding. She proceeded to describe to me a common cause of telogen effluvium where a major life stressor—say a car accident, pregnancy or even a crash diet—causes the hair follicles to stop growing. It is very similar to what was described to my clinic by another dietician. The dermatologist then sketched out a rough timeline on the paper covering the examination table and here below, I have tried to recreate it.

PKU Hair Loss Telogen effluvium

Click image to enlarge.

To summarize this graphic, the progression of my own hair loss coincided with what is commonly seen in cases of telogen effluvium. The initial shock to the system was my sudden return to the low-protein diet, and as a result, my hair follicles entered a resting phase. Generally speaking, the hair loss becomes noticeable about one to two months after the initial stressor when the new hair growth pushes out the resting hair.

Thankfully, this means that PKU patients who experience hair loss after returning to the PKU diet will eventually grow back their hair. In my case, I can already see “baby hairs” peeking through my hairline. Unfortunately, my dermatologist estimates it will take approximately two years before those baby hairs are long enough to tie back into a ponytail. In the meantime, I’ll embrace the heck out of some hairspray! 🙂

–NM

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