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Posts tagged ‘ichthyosis’

The Magic of Mermaids by Shelly Menzia

 

Ahhhh. Dreams…the mystical journey of slumber through a world that lives deep within.  Have you ever wondered if dreams, perhaps, not only guide us under the moonlight, but can be equally effective in guiding us in the light of day?  FIRST member Shelly Menzia believes just that. In fact, one of her most vivid  and influential dreams occurred nearly 40 years ago, when she was just eleven years old; a dream that would whisper the very secret she had looked for most of her life. We are delighted to  bring you Shelly’s story of acceptance, transformation…and yes…mermaids.

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Do you have dreams that are so real they haunt you for the rest of your life?

There is one in particular that I remember when I was about eleven years old. I was out camping with my family near the Copper River in Alaska in an old beat up camper, on an even older powder blue pickup truck. In my dream a “merman” came to the camper to take me from my family. He was not like the beautiful mermaids or mermen from the movies or books.  Although human-like in form, he had webbed feet and hands and huge “Spock-like” ears.  He was tall with various shades of dark, seaweed green skin.  Prince Charming…he was not.  He told me I had to go with him and marry him under the sea. I was terribly upset that my family did not try to stop him. It was like they had been expecting it. My family shrugged their shoulders, looked at me sadly and waved good-bye as he pulled me away. I waved back crying and begging for him to let me stay with them. He quietly but firmly pulled me along. 

 photo 3When we entered the water, I was amazed that the water felt so warm and comfortable and that I could breathe.  I had this amazing sense of freedom as we swam gracefully through the dark sea.  In the distance from up above I could see the sun shining and sparkling down towards me and I was no longer afraid of the merman.  After that I woke up but the dream has stayed with me for forty years. 

 It wasn’t until many years later I was able to analyze that dream with a friend and understood that it actually had some meaning to it. You see I was born with a rare congenital birth defect called ichthyosis (fish skin). It made growing up in our “soft skin is beautiful” society more difficult yet at the same time it shaped me into who I am.  My skin is very dry with little elasticity, it has a “scaly” like appearance. The only place and time I am truly comfortable is when I am in the water.  I spend hours in the tub and shower and put lotions on constantly so that I can feel as comfortable out of the water as I do in the water.

 I have faced some discrimination with ichthyosis, not being allowed into a public pool; when I was a kid, having people being afraid to touch me for fear it was contagious, and having my blood be refused when I tried to donate it at a blood drive at college.  These were just a few of the things that happened along the way.  I think the worst and most devastating incident however, was having my supervising teacher during my student teaching assignment ask that I not work with her anymore. She felt my skin was too “distracting” for the students to learn. I was devastated and I came very close to giving up my career in special education. I wanted to lock myself away in a room away from other people because of her prejudice and inability to understand.  Afterwards, I went home and had a good cry, (and consequently had the rest of my family crying) and went to take a long bath. (So long in fact my mother came to check on me…I think she had thought I had drowned myself or something.) I got through it though, and was placed with another woman who was a wonderful teacher and she was also very understanding.  She knew what it was like to have a skin problem because she had skin cancer.  She, along with my friends and family helped me get back on my feet emotionally and helped build up my confidence again. I ended up being much stronger for it and much less likely to place my beliefs about myself on the basis of one other person’s opinion.  Especially someone I hardly knew.

 photo (12)Even though I was stronger however, my skin was still an issue with me.  Oh, sure I could “handle” it OK and in 27 years of teaching I have never had a problem related to it.  Still, my perception of myself was fairly low as far as physical attractiveness goes.  I didn’t see myself as the person first, who happened to have ichthyosis. I was the girl with fish skin and somewhere inside of her – was me.

 Then something strange happened.  As I was talking about my skin condition to a new friend, I was joking, “Yeah, I’m part fish and part human…… Hey, I guess that makes me a mermaid!”

 In uttering that one goofy sentence, I went straight from monster girl with fish skin to a beautiful mermaid swimming and frolicking under the sea.  My perception of myself was changed radically and instantaneously from that moment on.  You have heard of “black pride,” “deaf pride,” and “gay pride,” with me it has become “mermaid pride.”  The many long baths I had to take, once tedious and boring, became trips to the sea in my imagination or I was like Daryl Hannah in the movie Splash.  Just going in to wet my “fins.” It was a magical transformation.

The Legend of Mermaids

After that I started doing some research and became fascinated with the legends of mermaids.  I learned that mermaid myths exist in almost every culture and they were thought by some to be healers or to have psychic powers.  There have been very credible people who have sworn that they have seen mermaids, sometimes right before a storm as if they were being warned of impending danger.  Many paintings show mermaids singing on top of rocks in the surf or playing with fellow sea creatures.  Most of them are beautiful romantic images.

Then I started developing my own theory about where the legends of mermaids may have come from.  What if just maybe, the legends of mermaids really did start with people who had ichthyosis?  I had to have inherited it from ancestors up to ten generations back and it had to come from both sides of the family, (recessive genes); Irish from my dad’s side and English/Dutch from my mother’s, both cultures which have mermaid myths.  Years ago people probably didn’t have lotions and baths to make them more comfortable so I imagine that everyone who had the chance would spend a lot of time in the water such as lakes, rivers, or oceans trying to stay comfortable.  Perhaps folks saw ichthyosis people in the water and along with seeing their fish like skin, the legends of mermaids were “spawned.” (Ichthyosis although rare is found in most cultures just like the legends of mermaids.)

 As I thought about it, I remembered going to an ichthyosis conference where for the first time I met other people with ichthyosis.  I was amazed as I got to know people, of the common similarities we had besides our skin. We talked about some psychic experiences most of us have had and I found out that almost every single person was musically inclined.  Many were involved in choirs.

So, of course, now I picture all OUR ancestors being the ones singing on those rocks and warning past sailors of danger.  Since then I have acquired quite the mermaid collection.  Of course, people who don’t know me have a hard time figuring out why I have all these mermaids- many which are bare chested all over the house.  (I have thought about making them little bras so the more sensitive people won’t be offended.)  My friends have been wonderful and always keep their eyes open for special mermaid “treasures” when they are traveling.  My most recent addition came from Italy.

I have had some fun with my mermaid revelation. Once in the Galapagos Islands I was on a Zodiac boat with some of the male guides from the ship.  They asked me about my skin but I didn’t think they would understand my English and I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain it in Spanish so I simply smiled at them and said very matter-of-factly, “Yo soy la sirena” (I’m a mermaid) and then I promptly dove into the water.  When I looked back at them they had their mouths hanging open as they looked back and forth between me and each other.  They couldn’t decide if I was crazy, joking, or maybe somehow telling the truth.  They looked at me strangely throughout the rest of the trip.  It was all I could do to keep from cracking up laughing every time they gave me one of those “looks.”  By the end of the trip I had been invited by the guides to sing and play with their onboard music group they had formed.  We had a blast.  It was a fun and magical trip.

It was several years ago now that I sat discussing the strange dreams I’ve had with my friend Lydia. When I told her about my merman dream she pointed out quite easily what it probably meant.  The merman WAS the ichthyosis and I WAS married to it.  I didn’t like it, my family didn’t like it, but there was nothing any of us could do about it.  It suddenly seemed so simple.

Now that I have been swimming through the “sea of life” for some time, I realize it’s OK to have ichthyosis and to be who I am. It’s not any scarier or worse than I choose to make it.  Whenever I want to, I can swim up to that sun shining and sparkling down towards me from the surface to be who ever I want to be or do what ever I want to do, because that is where the magic lives. The only thing that can ever stop me from going anywhere or doing anything is my perception of myself and all I can say about that right now is……Mermaid Power!!! 

What’s your story?  We’d love to hear it.

 


More from Mahwah…You Won’t Want to Miss.

What do you get when you mix a former biology teacher with a communications director at a Patient Support Forum?

As we disassembled the conference room following a day full of science, solutions and soulful conversation, I noticed what appeared to be a crinkle-edged, doodle-covered note on the edge of a table. Just as I was about to swipe it into the trash, a hand swooped in, snatching it up for the rescue.

“It’s an easy way to explain basic genetic mutation, using language,” Jennifer See said, holding it up for me to see.

Hmm. A quick and simple visual aid to the often complex biology of our very existence?  I was intrigued.

“To be or not to be,” she said, grabbing a fresh piece of paper and taking the seat next to me. As she began to re-draw what appeared to be the very same doodle,  it occurred to me that I was not the only person that could benefit from this avante-garde science lesson on the basics of genetic mutation. Luckily there were seven remaining minutes of power on my iPad…and Jennifer only needed one take!

Interested in learning more? Go to: What’s a Gene by confettiskin.com, detailing the very same topic discussed in this video.

Tips from the Product Breakout Session in Mahwah, NJ:

Also, as promised, below is list of helpful tips and products discussed during our product break out session with doctors and members. Keep in mind, that FIRST does not endorse or favor one product over another. We keep a comprehensive list of creams, lotions, bath additives, cooling products, etc., which is available to you by contacting our office.  Below are just a few helpful tips and products mentioned in Mahwah:

  • Remember, creams and lotions are a personal preference. Ask your child directly, what lotions do they like?  This will help guide what is working for their particular condition.
  • The group collectively agreed that some moisture creams sting less than others. Over the counter petroleum jelly is still a popular alternative following a bath, and some members have not had the need to even try other products. It doesn’t sting and it is inexpensive.
  • Body conditioner was recommended by one of the teen attendees to smooth and soften skin.
  • For exfoliating the scalp, one dermatologist highly recommended the “Tangle Teaser,” a comb from the UK.
  • Shea butter, mixed with lotion, is popular and inexpensive choice for moisturization.
  • Dawn dish detergent is a great additive to the laundry;  with the regular detergent, add a squeeze in the washer.

Next Patient Support Forum stop? San Jose!


Are We Wired for Kindness?

 

As you may already know, FIRST engages in social media, in a plethora of different ways, all in an effort to educate, inspire and connect all those affected with icththyosis.  Some days we are greeted with posts and comments that offer new and unexpected skin care tips – other days it might be a mom looking for support, or an affected person who just wants to have their voice heard. And still at other times, social media brings us to the very doorstep of compassionate souls – ones we likely will never even meet – out there in the world, advocating for our members. 

As volunteering and fundraising are a big part of our efforts to support the community, a few weeks ago we decided to post an online poll to facebook asking followers to tell us, in a single word – what volunteering actually feels like.  Then, we kicked back (only for a minute!) and watched as comment after comment filed in.   So, today after weeks of analogy, contemplation, and discussion, we are happy to announce, that social media has now served us in a new and exciting way.  It helped support a theory; one that we can now confidently and indisputably share with you, right here, right now.

{Insert drum roll} Doing good…feels good!

Yes, that’s it. That’s our theory.  Wait…don’t leave!  We have since found out that our theory is simply a scratch on the surface of a much bigger, broader, biology-based, “do good” theory!  In fact, did you know that there is a biochemical reason for helper’s high?

We’ve even found someone who has dedicated his work and his life to researching this very theory and we are happy to  welcome  guest blogger, Dr. David R. Hamilton, PhD, a friend of FIRST, scientist, speaker and the author of ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’, and the creator of the popular blog “Using Science to Inspire.”

 The 5 Side Effects of Kindness

by David R. Hamilton PhD

When we think of side effects the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects too?

Well, it does! And positive ones at that.

1)      Kindness Makes us Happier
When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. On a spiritual level, many people feel that this is because it is the right thing to do and so we’re tapping into something deep and profound inside of us that says, ‘This is who I am.’  On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain and so we get a natural high, often referred to as ‘Helper’s High’.

2)      Kindness Gives us Healthier Hearts
Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone, oxytocin, in the brain and throughout the body. Of recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin and therefore kindness can be said to be cardioprotective.

3) Kindness Slows Ageing
Ageing on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but two culprits that speed the process are Free Radicals and Inflammation, both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices.

But remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (that we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and so slows ageing at source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.

There have also been suggestions in the scientific journals of the strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, as well as regulating heart rate, also controls inflammation levels in the body. One study that used the Tibetan Buddhist’s ‘Loving Kindness Compassion’ meditation found that kindness and compassion did, in fact, reduce inflammation in the body, mostly likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.

 4) Kindness Makes for Better Relationships
This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people and so we feel more ‘bonded’. It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness.

Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater were the chances of survival and so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome. So today when we are kind to each other we feel a connection and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened.

 5) Kindness is Contagious
When we’re kind we inspire others to be kind and studies show that it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends – to 3-degrees of separation. Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.  A recent scientific study reported than an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a ‘pay it forward’ type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The ‘domino effect’, as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

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This information and all scientific references can be found in more detail in my books, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010) and ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’ (Hay House, 2011).

 

My Life as an Ichthyosis Mom

Over the years FIRST has collected and shared hundreds of “life stories,” as storytelling offers a meaningful way for members to open up and communicate their most significant, emotional, and inspirational moments.  And, equally as important, stories can heal our hearts and open our minds.  Today we’d like to share a mother’s story that began with a life-changing choice in 1986…

My Life as an “Ichthyosis Mom”  by Tracie Pretak

Things definitely did not start out easy. I was a freshman in college with huge plans and dreams for my future…but it was all crushed in a hurry when I made a life-changing choice and I was faced with an unplanned teen pregnancy. I became a single mom on June 15, 1986. I will never forget that day.

I remember going to the doctor on Friday for a check-up. It was still 3 weeks until my due date, and he said he expected me to go full-term. It was weird…but I had this strong sense that the baby was going to come early. On Saturday, our family attended my cousin’s wedding and then a graduation party. My brother Mark kept trying to get me to dance. I finally gave in when the Blues Brothers were playing, but at the end of the song, he dipped me and lost his balance. We fell to the ground and his knee hit my lower back. I was up all night with muscles spasms…and when the labor started, every labor pain was accompanied by more muscle spasms.

On Sunday morn, we headed to the hospital. I had this really strong belief that something was going to be wrong with the baby. I couldn’t explain it…I just knew. I also decided not to breast feed. I didn’t know why…just that I shouldn’t. And I knew that even though something was going to go wrong, somehow, the baby would be okay. I truly believe that this was God preparing me for what was to come.

Bailey Pretak

Bailey Pretak

The delivery went quickly, but I knew the moment I looked at my mom’s face that something was wrong…VERY wrong. Little Bailey Rae was born encased in a collodion membrane. The best way to describe it is to say she looked like a little “sausage”. There was fluid between the membrane and her skin. I didn’t even get to hold her! They brought her over in an incubator so I could reach in and touch her. Then, within 20 minutes of her birth, she was life-flighted to the nearest NICU. My doctor looked in his medical books and came in to tell me he believed she had ichthyosis. A dermatologist at the NICU called me the next day and confirmed it was lamellar ichthyosis.

I wasn’t released from the hospital until Tuesday, so she was 2 days old when I finally got to hold her! She stayed in the NICU for two weeks, until most of the membrane had peeled off.An unplanned teen pregnancy radically changes your life. Being a single parent is incredibly difficult, and having a baby born with ichthyosis is truly overwhelming. As fate would have it, I had all three! I honestly don’t know how I would have done it without the love and support of my family. My parents offered to watch her so I could finish college. Kip and Katrina helped, too.I wish I could say it was also easy, but there were parents who called the school principal and asked to have their kids moved to a different class; people who wouldn’t touch things she had touched; kids who teased her and called her “Scaly Bailey”. Those things just broke my heart.

Bailey Pretak

Bailey Pretak

As the years went on, I became more and more angry at people’s reactions and Bailey became more shy. She would hide behind me because she knew she was different. It wasn’t until I watched Bailey’s reaction the first time she saw a black person that I realized it was just a natural reaction for people to stare at something they’ve never seen before (however, this still doesn’t explain their rudeness). So we decided that every time someone stared, we would smile and wave. It has helped so much. You see…my negative reaction to the stares and rudeness was only making her more insecure. It was a turning point for both of us.

However, God has blessed her with so many amazing people to help her along the way. She was loved and accepted by her pre-school teacher, Mrs. Shauna (Shauna Miller). She met a wonderful friend in that pre-school, Julie Boults, who is still her friend today. She had the best Elementary School Principal in Mr. Bob Grumley and she was loved, accepted and challenged by her dance teacher, April Cush. Her confidence grew as she gained more and more experience performing on stage, thanks to both April and Beth Lenaway. She got a “daddy” who loved her like his own and adopted her and had a “sister by heart” in Cailtyn Pretak, who practically lived here at times. She had a pen pal, Laura Ashton, who was the first person she ever met with ichthyosis and who truly understood what she was going through. She was blessed with the best friend ever when she met her college roommate Natalie Cisternas Hann. And our church has been amazing! She credits them with being the first group of people to make her feel accepted. Her Sunday School teacher, Toot Mecca, changed her life for eternity.And there are two moments of her journey I will never forget. One, when she was crowned homecoming queen, (voted on by her classmates!), a moment we never dreamed was possible for a girl with ichthyosis. The other was during her senior year of college, when she sat in the spotlight and played piano on stage in front of an audience full of people. I couldn’t stop crying as I realized how far she had come!Bailey has grown from a shy, insecure little girl into a strong, beautiful woman who now teaches little “princesses” the meaning of true beauty.

Yes…it has been extremely difficult at times, but I can honestly say that what began as my greatest challenge in life has turned out to be my biggest blessing ever. God has given me the sweetest, most compassionate and most inspirational person I have ever known as my very own daughter. Wow! Today I am feeling SO blessed to be an “Ichthyosis Mom.” :)

Please share your story with us!

 


Your Donations at Work…

 

Latest FIRST funded Research on Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cell Biology

As one might imagine, the most top-of-mind question FIRST is asked by nearly all those affected with ichthyosis is:  What type of research is FIRST currently funding?  And, in fact, one of the most rewarding and exciting parts of our jobs, is…providing the answer.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Since 2006, Dr. Dennis Roop, an internationally recognized leader in skin disease research and his team at the Charles C. Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Colorado, has been funded by FIRST research grants to continue their cutting-edge work in epidermolytic ichthyosis (formerly known as EHK).

 Traditionally, stem cell research has focused on cells that are isolated from embryos and have unlimited “pluripotentcy” (the potential to differentiate into any type of cell or tissue). However, the goal for Dr. Roop’s  project is to generate induced or “reprogrammed,” pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, from adult cells.

Dr. Roop is specifically working with adult cells of epidermolytic ichthyosis (EI) patients – essentially reprogramming, or “inducing” pluripotentcy, by introducing factors, into these cells, that are capable of removing all of the cell’s memory, stripping it of all genetic coding as an adult cell, and reverting that cell back to an embryonic-like state. The reprogramming procedure gives the adult cells nearly the same pluripotent capabilities as embryonic stem cells.  There are two advantages of working with iPS compared to adult cells: they can multiply for a more prolonged time than adult cells and gene correction strategies work more efficiently in iPS cells than in adult cells.

The long-term goal of Roop’s work is to create iPS cells from individual patients, correct the mutant gene they contain, differentiate the iPS cells into keratinocytes andthen graft the corrected keratinocytes back onto the patient–in hopes that  they will multiply and generate unaffected skin. The research is best described in the above video, taken September 2012, whereby the fascinating research of Dr. Roop and his team is explained to a family affected by EI, in the very clinic the research is being conducted.

What specific progress has been made?

To date, the defective K1 gene in one patient’s iPS cells has been corrected.   This was achieved by introducing a zinc finger nuclease and a piece of DNA that contains the normal version of the mutant K1 gene into the iPS cells.  The zinc finger nucleases are like molecular scissors that cut the K1 gene near the site of the mutation.   The cells own DNA repair machinery then replaces the cut, defective region of the K1 gene with the introduced normal region of the K1 gene.

Tests are currently being performed on the corrected iPS cells to make sure that they are genetically stable and contain no new mutations.  Once that has been confirmed, a special recipe of nutrients will be added to the corrected iPS cells to allow them to become keratinocyte stem cells, and those will then be grafted onto mice to see if they will form a normal epidermis.  Differentiating iPS cells into keratinocytes is routine in many labs and well-established in Roop’s lab.

More on Dr. Dennis Roop’s research regarding EI (epidermolytic ichthyosis).

 


Few and Far Between


“In the end what I learned is that the story was really not about our differences, it was about our shared connection.” – Meredith Rizzo

Every once in a while, “perfect timing” is more than just an eruption of coincidental moments…it is, in fact, destiny.  At least, that was the case when young photo journalist, Meredith Rizzo, set forth to create her final thesis for a Masters of Arts degree in New Media Photo Journalism from the Corcoran College of Art & Design.

“The assignment for our thesis was to submit a long form body of work,” said Rizzo when describing the very first steps of her journey. “Around that same time, I learned that there would be a FIRST family conference in Denver.  So, I decided to go to the conference and see if I could document someone, affected with ichthyosis.”

Meredith’s father, Dr. William Rizzo, a current member of  FIRST’s Medical & Scientific Advisory Board, is a geneticist specializing in inherited metabolic diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  He has been researching Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome for the past 25 years.  In fact, Dr. Rizzo is leading a Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome study to gather clinical information about its natural history and search for biomarkers (tests) that can be used to monitor future therapy.

As ichthyosis is one of the symptoms of Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome, the skin disorder itself was not unfamiliar to Rizzo, and in fact, she worked at the research lab with her father for an entire summer as an intern. But, now– as a curious and conscientious journalist– she was interested in hearing about the disorder, directly from the source. She hoped that one of the affected conference attendees would be open to sharing their routine, their challenges, and the bull’s eye of all inquiries: how the diagnosis of ichthyosis has changed their lives.

Chapell-Mia-web3“I met the Chappell’s on the very first day of the conference.  Their daughter Mia not only has ichthyosis, but she has Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome – the very same syndrome my dad has researched for all these years. So it was really great to meet someone whom my dad’s research really has really affected. The disease is so rare, that doesn’t really ever happen.”

As described in Rizzo’s essay:

Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome is a syndrome so rare its incidence is unknown, but doctors estimate around 100 people in the United States live with it. For Mia, neurological impairment associated with the syndrome means that she is still learning to walk, climb stairs, and hold herself upright. Her mental progress is two years behind that of other children her age, and she has ichthyosis: dry, scaly skin– a lifelong condition that will require a daily regimen of scrubbing and lotions.

Rizzo would soon discover that the syndrome itself, may have changed the daily routine and future plans for the Chappell’s and yes, they are learning to deal with the constant  boomerang of ups and downs, but in truth…

the disorder has really nothing to do with… their life.

Fate Takes its Next Cue…

“The Chappell’s were so open to the idea right from the beginning.”

And then fate stepped in again.  The young woman whose father, a gifted geneticist, researching one the rarest syndromes known to man, was being led to use her own gifts and raise awareness for that very same syndrome. “Coincidentally, they live only 45 minutes from me so I was able to really connect with them pretty often over the course of the next ten months.”

Rizzo spent time with Mia in nearly every aspect of her life; at her school, capturing the interaction with classmates; at one of her physical therapy appointments and on a few occasions she even quietly accompanied Mia during her morning and evening skin care regimen, with mom and dad. “Whatever she was doing or wherever they were going when I went to their home, they invited me to come along and document what was happening. I even tagged along on Halloween!”

One particularly painful milestone was the day Mia visited the Orthotic Prosthetic Center, in Fairfax, Virginia, for the very first time. “The photos from the day she went to the doctors and got fitted for her new leg braces really capture some of the medical challenges they are dealing with.”

The story behind the story was beginning to appear.  “It was remarkable how much of their lives they shared with me. But then I realized, I was giving them a chance to talk about their situation, because, so often, they are simply not asked.”

The Universal Lesson…of Love

Ten months later, she had gathered the pages of a story that had become not only a school project, but a mission.

During the final stages, Rizzo reached out to a connection she had made at Corcoran. “A mentor of mine is actually the photo editor for National Geographic Magazine. She introduced me to their graphic designer, who helped to format the whole photo essay.”

Meredith’s desire to tell an untold story and  infuse it with “the energy of the subjects themselves,” was quickly manifesting into a uniquely personal piece of work, combining text, video and photos, and crafting an online photo essay, and e-book, that reflects not only the deep and profoundly human experience of the Chappell family, but of the journalist herself.

“I went into the experience thinking I would write about how the family deals with symptoms, liking itching or immobility. I would reveal how their lives were so different than everybody else. But in the end what I learned is the story was really not about our differences, it was about our shared connection. The story of their lives isn’t about Sjögren-Larsson Syndrome, it’s about a family’s love for their daughter…and that’s universal.”

To view Meredith Rizzo’s entire photo essay visit fewandfarbetween.net, or download the e-book: http://www.fewandfarbetween.net/the-ebook-download/
[photos by Meredith Rizzo]


Bathing Completes the Shedding Process…naturally.

It’s true! Bathing may be even more important to the shedding process, than previously considered, as it does not only cleanse our skin of dirt and other external debris, it completes the natural process of desquamation, sweeping away spent and finished epidermal cells.

What exactly is desquamation?
The epidermis is a self-renewing system. Old cells (or ‘squames’) are shed from the skin surface as new cells (‘keratinocytes’) are produced, in the underlying epidermis, and pushed outward into the stratum corneum (the outer most layer of the epidermis) to become ‘corneocytes’. This process is known as desquamation.

In the recent past, it was thought that the process of desquamation initiated the progressive breakdown (‘proteolysis’) of proteins forming structures, called ‘corneodesmosomes’. These protein forming structures link adjacent ‘corneocytes’ to one another.  We know know this prior model does not fully account for desquamation, because the cells detach well above the sites where these junctions are degraded. In other words, proteolysis of corneodesmosomes may be necessary for desquamation, but it is not sufficient to complete the entire shedding process.

Instead, recent studies show that cells detach following hydration.  Water swells the extracellular spaces and separates adjacent corneocytes. As the water evaporates from between corneocytes, it is replaced by air, which eventually allows individual cells to detach from the skin surface.

What does this mean for the ichthyosis community?
There’s no question – for those affected by ichthyosis, frequent bathing is now even more important, as it is not only the best way, but the most natural way to remove dry scales and skin – and, most importantly, more frequent bathing can ease the distress of ichthyosis, making day to day life much more comfortable.

Resource: Peter M. Elias, MD. http://eliasandwilliams.com/what-allows-skin-to-shed/

For more information on the permeability barrier, the most critical, life-enabling function of skin, visit the FIRST page on the  Inside Out of Skin a groundbreaking website developed by Peter M. Elias, MD, and Mary L. Williams, MD.

 

Research on “Gene Therapy Topical Ointment” Continues

Recent groundbreaking siRNA research, led by Northwestern University’s Chair of Dermatology,  Dr. Amy Paller, has inspired new hope for silencing  the underlying mutation of EI (epidermolytic ichthyosis) and its changes to the skin surface.Medical Stock-125943563-web

So what exactly is siRNA?
siRNAs are small interfering RNAs (sometimes called silencing RNAs) that “interrupt” the expression of a specific gene. They can recognize even the tiniest genetic change specifically, and thus can distinguish a normal gene from an abnormal gene. As one might imagine, their discovery has caused a surge in biomedical research and drug development for a variety of diseases.  Now, that surge has crossed paths with EI.

How can siRNA effect EI?
The blistering and thickening of skin seen in EI patients usually results from a change in a single letter of the DNA code (a mutation) that provides the codes for manufacturing keratin protein in the upper layers of skin. This single letter change leads to a protein product (a keratin) which is produced but does not function normally. In a dominant disease, both a normal and an abnormal gene and mRNA exist.  However, siRNAs can identify the abnormal strands of messenger RNA (the intermediary between the mutant gene and the abnormal protein), bind to them, and prevent the altered gene from being translated into protein.  Until now, the problem with siRNA has been getting it through the skin barrier, the outermost layer of the epidermis, and into the cells making the bad protein.

Paller, Amy-2012-WEBEnter:  Dr. Amy Paller, her extraordinary medical research team, and the fascinating field of nanotechnology*.  
Dr. Paller and her team have discovered that siRNA, attached to a “central 13nm gold nanoparticle”  can be rubbed into the skin in a simple topical ointment!  In 2012, her research was rewarded a $75,000 grant, by the 2012 FIRST Research Grant Program.  As of late, “We’ve developed 3-dimensional models of EI skin in culture and have also grafted EI skin to mouse models.  We have found some siRNAs that prevent the gene from being expressed, but are testing them to find the best one that affects the abnormal, but not the normal gene,” said Paller.    Read the full article here.

How will members of FIRST benefit from this research?
This type of non-viral, topically applied gene therapy holds promise for individuals with EI, as well as other dominantly inherited ichthyotic condition.  If such drugs can be delivered by topical applicaoitn, that would be a great advance.  FIRST is committed to providing the latest progress of this research, as well all related news and information.  Please visit our site as frequently as possible for the most recent updates. We also invite you to join our email list at:  www.firstskinfoundation.org.

*Nanotecnology.def: n. a technology executed on the scale of less than 100 nanometers, the goal of which is to control individual atoms and molecules, especially to create computer chips and other microscopic devices.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/topic.cfm?id=nanotechnology 

Raising Awareness for Rare Disease… One Cape at a Time

 

If you search the Internet for the origin of the “superhero cape,” as I just did, you might find yourself lost in a cyber-sea of Superman quotes, Twilight-tween tweets, and an oddly expansive selection of Zorro fan pages and Batman vs. Green Lantern public debates. I suppose now I am well equipped with unique and witty cocktail party conversation – particularly on Halloween – but more importantly, I am also certain that the superhero cape, regardless of its origin – has grown into a universally iconic symbol, summed up in single word: adventure.

For Robyn Rosenberger, founder of “Tiny Superheroes”, life, lately, has been nothing less. I had the great pleasure of speaking with this unlikely seamstress, who is quickly becoming an icon in her own right.

“I am not a seamstress by any stretch,” Robyn said when describing her epiphanic moment. “During the summer of 2012, I made three capes. One for my son, my nephew and my dog – just out of the blue, just for fun, and they loved it.”  That same summer she had also been following the blog, Blessed by Brenna – a weekly chronicle, authored by a young mother who happened to be an old schoolmate of Robyn’s husband – and who had also just given birth to a baby affected with Harlequin ichthyosis.

Then, one day while perusing the Blessed by Brenna blog, it happened — the “Aha” moment that would change Robyn’s life….

“Brenna needs a superhero cape because she is truly extraordinary!” Robyn thought as she rolled up her sleeves and began to assemble the fourth little cape she had ever sewn in her life.

However, when the story of Brenna’s cape broke in the blogosphere on both Robyn and Brenna’s blogs, it was as if the whole world was watching.  Unbeknownst to Robyn, when she had sewn that last little stitch on Brenna’s little cape, she had also begun the thread of something truly extraordinary herself – an organization that would empower children affected by rare disease all over the world.

“We decided to set up a page on our blog where we could take nominations for the next Tiny Superhero to receive a cape.” Her blog, Tiny Superheroes, now receives nearly 20 nominees a day, from a vast range of rare genetic disease communities, the world over.

“We seem to have a lot of interest from the ichthyosis community. It has been so wonderful getting to know these kids. And what’s been really amazing is that the children are all so different, so special in their own way.”

Tiny Superheroes has  been featured on Today.com, Fox News, Evening Magazine and the Huffington Post. But the most surprising fact?  The entire organization officially opened its doors just four months ago, in January of 2013.  “Now we’re even getting messages from people all over the world who’d like to volunteer and help us sew capes.  I’m trying to figure it all out as it comes – it’s really incredible how quickly it’s grown – but it seems to be all working so far.”

The second most surprising fact? In those mere four months, Robyn, and a small army of volunteers, have sewn nearly 500 capes – (although Robyn alone sewed 300 of them!)

Admittedly, this was not a lifelong dream of Robyn’s, as she had no experience, nor grandiose vision of one day helping to raise awareness for rare diseases. “It’s like the kids chose me, and it’s taken on a life of its own. I feel so privileged and I couldn’t be happier about where everything is going.”

By all accounts, the kids chose well.

However, Robyn now knows that she may not have been chosen to simply sew hundreds and hundreds of tiny capes.  “What I realized is that this work can help kids raise awareness for their own disease – which is really powerful. It’s much more than giving them a cape. It’s letting these kids know they can change the world. And I believe they can.”

And there you have it – no searching, nor super power, necessary.  Sometimes a hero really does just…come along.

For more on volunteering, donating, or nominating a Tiny Superhero go to www.Tinysuperheroes.com.

Learn more about how Robyn is empowering Tiny Superheroes on the video below.

Tiny Superheroes Video Screenshot-2013

 

Woman with Harlequin Ichthyosis Delivers a Healthy Baby Boy

 

 

First known case of a woman affected with
Harlequin Ichthyosis Giving Birth

 

Turner,Stephanie-Will 5-26-2013-web-WMCOLMAR, PA (May 28, 2013) In Little Rock, Arkansas, 20-year-old Stephanie Turner, of Wynne, Arkansas, gave birth to William Curtis Drake Turner at Little Rock Hospital on May 25, 2013.  Little Will, as his parents will call him, weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces and mother and son are said to be resting comfortably.

Stephanie, who is affected with the very rare skin disorder Harlequin ichthyosis, was not sure if she would be able to carry a child.  She and her husband Curt were thrilled last October when they realized they were expecting.  Stephanie was treated at a high-risk OB/GYN and her pregnancy was relatively normal.

Stephanie is a member of the Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.® (FIRST).  Founded in 1981, FIRST is the only foundation in the United States dedicated to helping those affected with all forms of ichthyosis.

There is no known cure for ichthyosis, only treatments,” said Jean Pickford, Executive Director of FIRST.  “This is a very exciting time in the ichthyosis community.  It offers hope that those affected with Harlequin ichthyosis can certainly lead happy and fulfilling lives.”

According to FIRST, each year, more than 16,000 babies are born with some form of ichthyosis, of those, approximately 300 are born with a moderate to severe form.  This disease affects people of all ages, races, and gender. The disease usually presents at birth, or within the first year, and continues to affect the patient throughout their lifetime.

Turner-Will-5-2013-WMAbout the Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.®
The Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.® (FIRST) is the only nonprofit foundation in the United States dedicated to families affected by the rare skin disorder ichthyosis.  Approximately 300 babies each year are born with a moderate to severe form of ichthyosis.  FIRST educates, inspires, and connects those touched by ichthyosis and related disorders through emotional support, information, advocacy, and has supported more than $1.4 million in research funding for better treatments and eventual cures.  For more information, call toll-free at 1.800.545.3286 or visit www.firstskinfoundation.org.

 

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