Did You Know:
- An estimated 350 million people are affected by rare disease worldwide.
- 1 in 10 Americans is affected by rare disease, that’s over 30 million people. 30 million Americans is more than the total number of people living worldwide with cancer & aids.
- There are more than 7,000 rare diseases with some affecting less than 100 people. 75% of rare disease affect children.
- Almost 80% of rare disease are genetic in origin.
- These rare conditions are chronic, life threatening and FATAL. There are NO cures for any rare disease, and only 5% of the diseases have any treatment.
- Over 50% of Rare Diseases have no foundations, advocacy group or community support.
Mitochondrial Disease means that my body cannot properly turn food and oxygen into Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the energy molecule necessary to sustain life. Because the disease is in my cells, it affects multiple organs causing secondary diseases.
Although my symptoms started in early childhood, it took doctors over 20 years for a diagnosis, since Mitochondrial Disease is considered RARE.
History of Mitochondrial Disease
Mitochondrial disease was first described in a patient in Stockholm the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the first molecular identification of cause of mitochondrial diseases occurred. More patients with various forms of mitochondrial disease were diagnosed through muscle biopsies in the 80’s and 90s, but it wasn’t until the last decade that many doctors began to understand how to identify patients affected by mitochondrial disease.
Additionally, after the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, several of the disease-causing genes in both the nuclear DNA genome (nDNA) and the mitochondrial DNA (or mtDNA) genome were identified, and genetic tests have become available to test for them – making diagnosis of mitochondrial disease easier. Additionally, several forms of Mitochondrial Disease can be tested for through newborn screening!
Though diagnostics are improving, there are still very few doctors that know how to recognize and correctly diagnose it. In my case, I was actually correctly diagnosed in 2005, when muscle biopsied for a misdiagnosis of polymyositis (another rare neuromuscular disease). Mitochondrial Disease had never been ‘suspected’ in me, so when my biopsy was sent to a lab they realized it had been mitochondrial myopathy all along, not an auto-immune disease as I had been mis-diagnosed with several times.
How Mitochondria Work:
Inside of nearly every cell in your body are tiny organelles called “mitochondria.” These organelles act as “cellular power plants” because they produce more then 90% of your body’s cellular energy. When you eat, mitochondria convert the food into its energy form called adenosine triphosphate or ATP through a process called cellular respiration which occurs in the electron transport chain. The energy (or ATP) is necessary to sustain life as they provide cellular energy for organ function.
What Happens When They Don’t Work?
Research shows that if the mitochondria malfunction, it can lead to a number of diseases depending on which cells in the body are affected. Mitochondrial dysfunction plays a role in several neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimers, Parkinsons, Huntingtons, and Lou Gehrigs disease (ALS – Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and studies have shown mitochondrial dysfunction to also be a piece to the puzzle for more common conditions including diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease, blindness, deafness, kidney & liver disease, stroke, and autism. Mitochondria also play a role in the aging process!
In addition, as many as 2 million American’s suffer from mitochondrial diseases – a group of diseases resulting from gene mutations in the mitochondrial and/or nuclear DNA. When these mutations occur, they can also lead to malfunction along the electron transport chain resulting in cell injury due to insufficient energy from their cellular powerplant (the mitochondria). Cell injury can lead to cell death, and when multiple cells die in one organ, that organ won’t have sufficient energy for functioning. As this happens in multiple organs as the disease progresses, the individual can portray a wide variety of symptoms.
For me, mitochondrial disease has effected my heart, neurological system, muscles & lungs the most. These organs require the most energy to function, so with insufficent energy it has caused symptoms such as seizures, stroke-like episodes, dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (which regulates things such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature), and muscle breakdown (myopathy) resulting in me needing to use a wheelchair for mobility and a ventilator due to lung muscle weakness causing pulmonary failure. I also use IV infusions to help stabilize the autonomic nervous system and increase my heart rate & blood pressure.
Another person with mitochondrial disease may present completely different. Some individuals may have less trouble walking and more trouble with issues like learning disabilities, autism, cognitive problems or developmental delays. Some may become deaf or blind while others rely on feeding tubes for nutrition. No two individuals (even within the same family) will present the same way. Because of this, it makes it harder for many doctors to recognize the signs.
Did You Know: There are more children in the US affected with Mitochondrial Disease then all forms of childhood cancers combined! Mitochondrial Disease may be considered a “rare disease,” but it’s far more common then you’d think! At least 1 in 4,000 people in the United States are living with Mitochondrial Disease! Who are some of these people? Here are a few familiar faces:
Actress Chandra Wilson (Dr. Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy)‘s daughter, Serena is living with Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVC) – a Mitochondrial Disorder. She shared her daughters story on The Doctor last year:
Baseball Player, Rocco Baldelli put mitochondrial disease in the news in 2008 when he was diagnosed with Mitochondrial Disease. He was later diagnosed with a channelopathy, but his story inspired many young children also affected by Mitochondrial Disease. During his career, he played for both the Tampa Rays & the Boston Red Sox, but after numerous injuries, his health forced him to retire at age 29.
“I physically don’t feel like I should be playing anymore.” – Rocco Baldelli
Mattie Stepanek (MDA National Goodwill Ambassador 2002-2004) also lived with Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy and died shortly before his 14th birthday. Since Mitochondrial Disease is genetic, Mattie’s entire family was affected by the disease. His mother, Jeni, lost all 4 of her children to the disease. Here’s his story as told by his mother: