by Sandra Bretting
published in 2010
A recent $2.5 million gift to the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital has paved the way for noted Italian researcher Andrea Ballabio, M.D., to serve as visiting scientist at the institute for a year. Ballabio and his team conduct research into neurodegenerative disorders and lysosomal storage disorders, such as Batten disease.
The gift comes from Cherie and James C. Flores, who donated $2 million to the effort, and from the Beyond Batten Disease Foundation, which contributed $500,000. The foundation was established by Charlotte and Craig Benson, whose daughter, Christiane, was diagnosed with juvenile Batten disease in 2008.
Batten disease is a rare genetic disorder that attacks the nervous system. It was first documented nearly one hundred years ago, but research has been limited until now. There is no treatment and no cure. The earliest signs are subtle and often do not occur until a child is about 5 years old.
“It is heartbreaking to think that this disease will one day rob Christiane of her ability to see and walk and use her mind. And, eventually, it will take her from us, unless we act now,” Benson said.
“We have to believe that there’s an answer, and we are confident that there is hope for the future in terms of developing treatments for Batten disease,” he continued. “Texas Children’s Hospital is uniquely positioned to make progress against genetic disorders like Batten disease through facilitating collaborative research and recruiting world-renowned scientists like Dr. Ballabio and his associates.”
Ballabio has served on the molecular and human genetics faculty of Baylor College of Medicine. Currently, he is the scientific director of the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine in Naples, Italy. He and his team recently discovered the gene that controls the body’s ability to degrade and recycle toxic molecules. The build-up of these molecules is the cause of numerous genetic disorders, including Batten disease, along with other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.
“We have identified a ‘master’ gene that acts as a genetic switch,” Ballabio said. “By enhancing the function of this master gene, we can increase the clearance capacity of the cell and its ability to degrade toxic proteins. We believe this knowledge will help us develop better treatments and, ultimately, find a way to prevent these diseases.”
Phase one of Ballabio’s research at Texas Children’s began in July and is focused on the development of animal models for Batten disease and other disorders. Phase II, beginning next summer under the leadership of Ballabio’s research associate, Marco Sardiello, Ph.D., will investigate which drugs are able to promote activation of the master gene.