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#RareDiseases - DART, India's 1st research lab on rare diseases, aims to annihilate muscular dystrophy

In our July campaign #RareDiseases, we focus on the Dystrophy Annihilation Research Trust (DART), that has been working to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a rare genetic disease that affects over five lakh children in the country. Read the inspiring story of a father behind India's first research lab working to annihilate the disease and change the lives of countless kids.

What do you do when your only child, age seven, is diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease like Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) that has no cure?

It lead Ravdeep Singh Anand started a research lab, India's first, to study DMD in the hopes of finding a cure. Anand, who has no medical background, is the Founder-President of Dystrophy Annihilation Research Trust in Bengaluru, which was in the news recently for coming up with a genetic intervention procedure for people with DMD.

That procedure is set for clinical trials, a moment that the Anands' and countless other families battling this rare condition have been waiting for.

What is DMD?

A neurodegenerative disease, DMD occurs only in boys. It is a genetic condition where the protein dystrophin, needed for muscles to function properly is present at much lower levels than what is needed. As the child grows older, the muscles continue to degenerate. This means the child will have to use a wheelchair for a large part, before being bedridden. There is no cure for DMD, it can only be managed with steroids and physiotherapy.

Movin and Ravdeep Anand were fortunate as their son Karan was diagnosed fairly early, but as Ravdeep points out, the battle had just started.

Diagnosis was one thing. We got him diagnosed pretty early, when he was two-and-a-half. From there on, once you know what the problem is, then what? The 'then what' question had to answered. How much ever we were looking around in India and abroad we were not finding a solution or a path. And as the years went by, that was becoming quite frustrating and as Karan was growing older, his problems were increasing. We were getting quite desperate to get a handle on things. - Ravdeep Singh Anand, Founder-President ,Dystrophy Annihilation Research Trust

Putting the team together

India has over five lakh children with DMD, among the highest numbers in the world but there's no treatment available at an affordable cost. Nor was there any research taking place in the country. All the research was happening in the West, a status quo Ravdeep refused to accept.

"I started figuring out that we have one of the highest numbers of children, but no one was looking at India. There were so many trials going on in the United States and Europe but not here. I don't have a science background, but I said let me use my experience as a project manager to get the ABCD together, all the factors together", he recalls.

His search led him, among others, to Dr Arun Shastry, Chief Scientific Officer at the DART Lab.

"What we are trying to do is a kind of genetic intervention for DMD", says Dr Arun, who has been a part of DART since it was founded in 2012. "The challenge is that, being genetic, no two children are the same. The treatment for every child is unique and needs personalised medicine. What we have done in DART is create new molecules that will help the children affected".

Key to DART's success has been the collaboration with experts from countries like Australia and Netherlands as well in India, mainly Kolkata. "When we look at the cost factor, the procedure we have developed is available in other countries is ₹2 crore a year. Ours will cost a fraction of that", says Dr Arun. The procedure will stabilise the condition of the child by stopping the progression of the disease. "This means that is the child with DMD is walking, the treatment we have developed will ensure he will not have to use a wheelchair".

The aim is to arrest the degeneration, says Ravdeep. "Once we bring a status quo to the boy, we can focus on regeneration and repair". He is confident that with the new procedure developed, the end point is close at hand. "We are much closer to the final destination. The final chapter is yet to be written and the good thing is that the whole world is working on it".

It is this never say die spirit and optimism that has kept the Anands' going through some hard times. "There was a time when I needed ₹3 crore to import a vital piece of equipment and had no idea how I would manage", recalls Ravdeep. Many affected families he reached out to help were surprisingly wary, which was disheartening. But Ravdeep was relentless in his mission to live up to the A in DART and annihilate muscular dystrophy, and find the light ahead for his son and other children.

Apart from the R&D lab, DART supports affected children and their families in many ways by providing information, awareness campaigns, counselling and rehabilitation support.

To Know More about DART, visit their website.

ALSO READ: RareDiseases - Coping with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy powers Karan's passion to help others

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