Patients are our guiding force. On a global scale we strive to understand their individual journeys and unique needs. As we work to advance our pipeline of investigational therapies, we recognize the essential need to gain important perspectives from patients, families and leaders in patient advocacy.
We are committed to collaborating with patient advocates and advocacy organizations around the world. Together, we share a common goal of addressing the many unmet needs for patients, caregivers and their families. Patient advocacy at Spark Therapeutics serves as a liaison between our company and members of the patient, caregiver and advocacy communities to work together in areas of mutual interest.
We respect the independence of patient groups, and we will always be transparent in our communications. From the earliest stages of the discovery and development process, we believe the patient voice is critical. The opportunity to learn from and work with the advocacy community has an impact in all areas of our work.
Our first step with any advocacy community is to listen. We want to know about all of the issues that are important to patients and families. What unmet needs should be addressed? How can we support those efforts? We will use these insights to identify opportunities for collaboration and to create effective patient support programs and services. These insights also significantly enhance our communications with the community. We are committed to keeping the patient communities we serve informed of our progress and to act quickly to understand and address emerging issues. Receive updates and learn more about Spark’s advocacy efforts by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-855-SPARKTX (1-855-772-7589) in the U.S.
The resilience of the people we serve is our inspiration to push through barriers to create a world where no life is limited by genetic disease. These are just some of the individuals who drive us to do more.
Becoming an accomplished Impressionist-style painter is not the most obvious choice for someone who is facing a deteriorating eye condition, but that has been Eric Hartman’s calling for the past 15 years.
A business executive turned artist, Eric was living on Cape Cod in the early 2000s when he began to train in the style of Monet and Degas in 19th-century France. He has been at it ever since. Eric’s art has taken him places near and far – from months-long plein-air immersions in the French countryside, to afternoons with his easel in City Park, in his native New Orleans. Even though his sight has continued to diminish, his zeal to experience and capture the landscapes around him has only grown.
“People with conditions like ours talk of trying to build a visual scrapbook, placing our visual memories in our brain,” Eric said. “The more I have done my art, the more visual I have become. My sense of color, of composition, of shadows have fine-tuned my eye.”
While art has given Eric a deeper connection to the world around him, the work that Eric has done through the Choroideremia Research Foundation (CRF) has done the same for thousands of people throughout the world with choroideremia.
CRF emerged in the late 1990s to become a leading provider of patient support services for its almost 600 members in 12 countries. CRF has also become a catalyst for scientific research, investing millions of dollars to support academic researchers focused on the condition.
While the organization’s research agenda is aimed at accelerating potential breakthroughs to preserve or restore sight, it is equally focused on meeting the needs of people living with a condition that can be deeply isolating. Growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s and 70s, Eric, himself, did not meet another person with choroideremia until he was 40 years old, in 1998. When he did, it was an overwhelming experience.
“Suddenly, the struggles I faced on a daily basis were relatable – walking into half-opened doors, losing my place in darkened rooms. I met others who were comrades in arms, and we began learning from each other. It was such a relief that there are people for me to talk with.”
For Phillip Smith, it was just another day in fifth grade outside with his friends, playing one of the many sports he’d grown to love during his childhood: slow-pitch softball. He held up his glove to catch the ball, like he’d done dozens of times before.
But this time, the ball didn’t make its way into Phillip’s gloved hand. Instead, it collided – hard – with his elbow. For most kids his age, this type of playground mishap might have resulted in a trip to the nurse’s office and an ice pack. For Phillip, however, the decision he made that day would have life-long consequences.
Phillip was born in 1960 with severe hemophilia A, a rare bleeding disorder. Growing up in Illinois, his older foster brother, who also had hemophilia, encouraged Phillip to be cautious when playing with his friends. He recalled that “there were a lot of ‘don’ts,’” due to fear of inadvertently causing a bleed that would send him to the emergency room for a blood transfusion, the standard hemophilia treatment at the time for a serious bleed.
He was an adventurous child, however, who enjoyed sports, ranging from basketball, to dodgeball, to baseball. That day when Phillip got hit in the elbow with the softball, he decided not to confide in his foster parents because he was afraid that he would get in trouble. “So, I kept it secret,” said Phillip. “That elbow ended up being a target joint for a couple of decades,” meaning that his elbow became a joint that bled frequently for many years after that incident.
“If I had told my parents, I wouldn’t have had to endure such frequent trips to the emergency room and to physical therapy in the years since then,” Phillip said. In retrospect, he knows now that one should “treat as soon as possible” because “the longer you wait, the more damage you’re doing to your joints.”
Phillip suffered additional challenges throughout his youth and young adulthood due to lack of safe treatments for his hemophilia. When he was a teenager, he acquired hepatitis C from a blood transfusion and later, the HIV virus from the plasma products used for hemophilia treatments.
Yet, despite these tribulations, Phillip has retained his uniquely sunny disposition. Hemophilia, and all that’s come with it, has taught him compassion and also to “be more patient and empathetic than I might have normally been.”
He since went on to pursue a career in specialty pharmaceuticals and has maintained his active lifestyle. Phillip is optimistic for what the future holds for people like him with hemophilia. He encourages others who he meets in the hemophilia community to seek out answers to their questions about the disorder, and to stay informed about research and the development of potential new treatments. “Make sure you understand what it is, how it works,” he said. “Make sure you educate yourself. If you don’t have a science background like I do, talk to your physician.”
Jolene Scicchitano, a sixth-grade math teacher living in rural Pennsylvania, didn’t know she was a carrier for hemophilia A until her first son, Jacob, was born nearly 30 years ago. Her younger sons, Seth and Ben, were later born with hemophilia A as well.
“I had so many questions and so much fear,” Jolene recalled. “My vision was that they’re going to have a very difficult life with a lot of pain.” To compound her fears, Jacob was born at the height of the blood contamination epidemic in the 1980s, and Jolene worried about the safety and purity of the plasma products that were standard-of-care to treat hemophilia at the time.
As a mother of three young sons living with hemophilia, Jolene also became their caregiver. She spent numerous hours over the years administering and tracking their time-consuming and costly treatments. “The most difficult thing was taking care of their bleeding and the damage to their joints. But in addition to all of that, it was the amount of time – filing insurance paperwork, keeping treatment logs and taking care of bills. It was another part-time job,” she said.
Despite the hurdles of ensuring her sons received consistent and adequate treatment over the years, Jolene persevered and insisted that hemophilia would not define her boys’ childhood. Her family’s mantra became: hemophilia is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.
She continued to seek out as much information as she could. She educated herself and read whatever she could find, hoping for better treatments for her boys. Her family also turned to the local hemophilia community to meet others with this inherited disease and gain access to new information and resources. “Living in a rural area, getting to those conferences, we were able to meet other people [living with hemophilia]. The best way to learn about anything is by living through it. I think we have one of the best communities.”
And as Jacob, Seth and Ben grew up, they found daily inspiration from each other. “They’re resilient and perseverant,” Jolene said of her sons. While she worried about the kind of life her boys would lead with a diagnosis of hemophilia A, Jolene now looks to the future with great hope. With her oldest son married, her middle son graduated from college and in the workforce, and her youngest son finishing his last year of college, she is confident they will continue to give 100 percent to everything they do. “My sons are my heroes.”
After years of regularly experiencing difficulty going up stairs, Ryan mentioned something to his doctor. His doctor simply checked another box on his blood test request, in addition to the liver enzyme panel which had regularly been tested since he was a kid due to high liver enzyme levels. This additional blood test result showed an elevated CK (Creatine Kinase), which can be an indication of muscle damage. This result kicked off a process of working with a variety of specialists towards a diagnosis. A year and a half later, after eliminating more common muscle diseases, a little luck intervened – a blood sample to test for Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy was sent to a medical center with a comprehensive policy of concurrently screening for diseases with symptom overlap, one of which is Pompe disease, a rare genetic disease.
Pompe disease is caused by mutations in the acid alpha-glucosidase (GAA) gene that lead to a deficiency in a protein (also called GAA) responsible for breaking down a complex sugar (glycogen) in a specific part of the cell known as a lysosome. The accumulation of this glycogen leads to breakdown of muscle in the adjacent cell structure. By using a NGS (next generation sequencing) technique on Ryan’s simple blood sample, the lab was able to identify two such variants which are known in Pompe.
Armed with a diagnosis, Ryan started to put more pieces of the puzzle together during a period of reflection. He realized his symptoms actually began at a young age. In old home videos, Ryan saw himself at his kindergarten graduation pushing off his legs with his hands to get up the stairs to the stage, and that he’d get up off of the ice a little more slowly than his teammates during drills at hockey practices. Those abnormal liver enzyme levels doctors had been chasing for 15+ years now had an explanation as well – they are common in Pompe and other diseases affecting muscles. Growing up he also regularly received comments on his posture and unique walk. That was Pompe the whole time.
Ryan’s lengthy path to diagnosis is common for those with a rare disease. Although he wasn’t diagnosed until he was an adult and despite dealing with symptoms his whole life, Ryan doesn’t regret how his life has unfolded.
“The challenges I’ve faced have shaped me, and I’ve developed values and traits that I’m proud of,” said Ryan. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t do everything possible to push for earlier diagnosis across all rare diseases, because it is critical to do so. I also think there is an understanding among the rare disease community, bonded by the knowledge that we’ve all faced challenges as we march uphill and into a headwind.”
Post-diagnosis, as a “new” Pompe patient, Ryan worked to get up-to-speed and educated on the disease so that he wouldn’t have to be a bystander on the journey. As is the experience with many people living with a rare disease or still searching for diagnosis, the start of this journey was scary with feelings of uncertainty, fear and isolation. Those feelings still exist, but as he learned about the disease and took inspiration from others facing challenges associated with Pompe and other rare diseases, new feelings took over…
“There was an overwhelming interest in the fascinating and wonderful ways that our bodies and genetics work, along with the amazing stories of extraordinary people who have contributed to progress thus far. A sense of excitement that we are on the cusp of really outstanding scientific breakthroughs and the potential that they have,” said Ryan. His goal now is to channel this new energy into positive action, charged with a sense of responsibility to participate and help elevate and empower the role that patients and families play in the rare disease ecosystem.
Part of Ryan’s education has come from actively seeking out a community. He has found this through networking and follow-up at various patient, scientific and advocacy-focused meetings and conferences, including the AMDA (Acid Maltase Deficiency Association), UPF (United Pompe Foundation) and IPA (International Pompe Foundation). Outside of Pompe, Ryan has also enjoyed learning and networking through Global Genes and EveryLife Foundation events, among others. Another tool Ryan uses to stay current on industry news and advancements is ClinicalTrials.gov, which lists private and publicly funded clinical studies from around the world and is searchable by disease and country.
With a richer understanding of the rare disease ecosystem, Ryan now realizes the tremendous community that already exists. His goal is to work with that community and empower patients to move from “subjects” to participants, collaborators and partners that help accelerate progress in the understanding and treatment of rare diseases.
“It sounds strange to say, but it’s a really exciting time: We have so many wonderful people (and companies) putting their efforts and talents into helping people with rare diseases.” He continued, “we’re on the cusp of being able to deliver diagnoses and treatments, for the first time, to many of the ten percent of people in the United States that have one of over 7,000 rare diseases. While with others, like Pompe, we’re working on second generation treatments that can focus on improvements beyond just survival.”
“I’m passionate about accelerating progress for Pompe and rare disease patients, with an emphasis on participation, community, patient empowerment, education and the accessibility of information,” concluded Ryan.
Monique Griffin, finding purpose in patient advocacy and education
Monique Griffin always lived an active and busy life, whether it was competing in gymnastics as a child or her demanding career, leading communication efforts for a large hotel and resort brand. This constant, on-the-go lifestyle led Monique to dismiss symptoms of Pompe disease for years as what she thought was normal fatigue.
She initially went to her doctor in her early 20’s after she began waking up with headaches. Together, Monique and her doctor compiled a list and began testing for various possible explanations for her symptoms, including environmental issues such as gas leaks at home and allergies. It was not until a follow up visit to her doctor that he noticed she had to push up on the chair armrest in order to stand up. Additional tests were ordered, and an initial diagnosis of inflammatory myopathy was made.
Monique accepted this diagnosis and her prescribed treatment plan of steroids at face value. She didn’t delve further into other options despite continuing symptoms. Over the next decade her disease progressed to the point that she needed handrail assistance to climb a flight of stairs and watched closed captioned TV as her chronic extreme pain was worsened with sound.
Monique attributed her worsening symptoms to her diagnosis of inflammatory myopathy coupled with a demanding job working 60-100 hours a week. Finally, after a fall at her house resulted in a concussion, she decided to seek additional opinions and potential treatments. After nearly a decade of progressive symptoms, a subsequent genetic test revealed that the diagnosis of inflammatory myopathy was incorrect, and, in fact, Monique’s experience was due to Pompe disease. Because Pompe disease, a lysosomal storage disorder and neuromuscular disease caused by mutations in the acid alpha-glucosidase (GAA) gene, is rare and symptoms are not always obvious, it can often be misdiagnosed.
“Getting diagnosed was a relief, because not knowing what I had was so much scarier,” said Monique, who is now successfully able to manage her disease and is no longer in constant pain. “With a correct diagnosis and treatment plan in place now, it’s a much better life.”
Monique now uses her experience as a lesson and hopeful story for other patients who might be in the same position. She has found that misdiagnoses are common for Pompe disease due to the fact that doctors simply do not know much about the disease and symptoms can mimic more common conditions and may present differently in each patient.
Understanding the disease and being able to help others with this knowledge now drives Monique in her patient advocacy work. She participates in clinical trials and has become an advocate for patients, speaking at meetings with elected officials and traveling around the country to engage medical professionals as well as individuals living with Pompe disease. From her first experience in a clinical trial, to becoming the first patient in the United States to receive a new, commercialized treatment for Pompe disease in 2010, Monique has taken advantage of her experience to help others.
“I share my story to give other patients hope while educating medical professionals to make diagnosis easier for others. It’s given me a sense of purpose,” Monique said. “Doctors need more education on this disease, especially with how it presents in adults. They must routinely offer the one-time genetic test for Pompe disease in order to diagnose in early stages.”
As a fierce patient advocate, Monique encourages patients to be their own champion and manage their own healthcare experience by coming armed to appointments with questions and research and looking into second opinions when necessary.
“There is a lot of help to be had, but you need to know where to look and shouldn’t be afraid to get that second opinion or do your own research,” said Monique. She especially sees the patient online and social media community as a tremendous asset. “For Pompe disease patients who have been diagnosed, they’ve been through it. They’ll understand your questions and concerns because many have been in that same situation.”
Monique continues to stay positive and enjoys the welcoming and supportive community of patients with Pompe disease. “I’m optimistic about the clinical research in Pompe disease underway and planned for the future. It creates hope for the Pompe community that research may advance our understanding of Pompe disease and how to best manage, treat and hopefully one day cure this inherited condition.”
Curt Krouse has come full circle.
Growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania as a child with severe hemophilia B, Curt was always aware of the support services provided by his local chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation (NHF). Back then, however, Curt’s primary interaction with the group was helping his mother set up the annual fashion show fundraiser she volunteered to organize.
Curt’s personal routine requires him to infuse once or twice per week, depending on his activity level, wear ankle braces and take other measures to help manage the pain of arthritis. All people with bleeding disorders must be vigilant about their activities, and reconsider those that may put them at risk.
He now knows arguably more about the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the NHF than anyone, having served as executive director since early 2014. The role combines his two decades of experience in sports and events marketing with a personal desire to give back to the hemophilia community.
“I’ve come to embrace that I can help families and children growing up today have a good and successful life, by sharing my own perspective growing up with hemophilia. This position has taught me a lot about the community, and a lot about myself. I feel strongly that this is where I am supposed to be.”
A key priority for Curt since taking on the role is extending that sense of belonging to all people with hemophilia and a related bleeding disorder, von Willebrand disease. The Eastern Pennsylvania chapter supports medical research and provides financial assistance, education, family programming and advocacy at the state and federal level to benefit local patients with hemophilia and von Willebrand disease. Their motto speaks of a community united: 41 counties, one chapter.
As Curt considers the medical setbacks and advances that have shaped the hemophilia community throughout his 49 years, he recognizes that the current moment could be a transformational one. He said that recent developments in gene therapy research have given the community a sense of “guarded excitement” about the potential to reshape the care of people whose lives are now ordered around a pattern of receiving infusions of clotting factor to prevent uncontrollable bleeds.
As our scientific programs progress, we are grateful to work alongside advocacy groups, raising awareness of and supporting people affected by rare genetic diseases. Learn more about our disease areas of focus, and hear from members of our scientific team about what motivates them every day to propel Spark Therapeutics’ gene therapy research programs forward.
As a bridge between Spark Therapeutics and patient communities, we aim to create meaningful relationships that help us challenge the inevitability of genetic disease and address the needs of those communities we serve.
In her role as Patient Advocacy Lead, Tessa Field supports Spark Therapeutics’ interactions with non-profit advocacy organizations in the hemophilia and rare diseases communities, with a focus on understanding and incorporating their perspectives into our programs. Throughout her career, Tessa has leveraged her genetic counseling training to tailor communication and education for both the healthcare provider and non-medical audience. Some of the patient communities Tessa has worked with include ectodermal dysplasias, Fragile X syndrome, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, basal cell carcinoma nevus syndrome and rare genetic causes of obesity.
Tessa earned a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Vermont and an M.S. in Genetic Counseling from Boston University School of Medicine. She is a board-certified genetic counselor by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
A guiding principle Tessa aims to keep in mind is: “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” – Maya Angelou
As Patient Advocacy Lead, Amy Fisher is responsible for building and sustaining relationships with patient advocacy organizations aligned with Spark Therapeutics’ disease areas of interest, including inherited retinal disease and certain central nervous system disorders. Amy brings nearly two decades’ experience in rare diseases to her current role, from clinical care in academic medicine, to medical affairs and patient advocacy roles in industry. While Amy’s depth of experience is greatest in the lysosomal storage disorders (LSD) communities, she has also worked with communities focused on hereditary angioedema, epidermolysis bullosa, Prader-Willi syndrome, Huntington’s disease, inherited retinal diseases and specific rare liver conditions.
Amy earned a B.S. in Biology (Genetics and Developmental Biology, honors in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) from Penn State University, and an M.S. in Human Genetics (Genetic Counseling) from the University of Michigan. She is a board-certified genetic counselor by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
Amy finds it helpful to remember the power of positive thinking: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
As the EU Patient Advocacy Lead at Spark, Greg Robertson supports interactions with international non-profit advocacy organizations across the rare disease community. Prior to Spark, Greg spent over seven years at Shire in the UK and Switzerland, where he served in a number of international patient advocacy roles at the managerial level, concluding with a role as Head of International Patient Advocacy. Throughout his career at Shire and previous roles at Abbott, Greg has led brand, marketing, or patient advocacy initiatives, primarily in the realms of genetic and rare diseases.
Greg graduated with a B.Eng. focused in mechanical engineering from Durham University in the United Kingdom. Greg always tries to remember the quote attributed to Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Laureen Temple brings over 15 years of hematology/rare bleeding disorders expertise to her role as Senior Patient Advocacy & Community Outreach Specialist at Spark Therapeutics. Laureen has worked extensively in the sales, management and training fronts across the biotechnology and surgical industries and has a particular passion for thought leadership, marketing and strategic planning. She has worked with multiple biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies across the span of her career, including Genentech, Novo Nordisk, CSL Behring, Interpore Cross International and Aesculap.
Laureen received a B.A. in communication and media studies from the Behrend College of Pennsylvania State University. Her favorite quote is from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
Committed to empowering individuals and families affected by rare diseases, Samantha Willner has dedicated her career to giving a voice to a multitude of patient communities through advocacy, education, research and development. Catalyzed by her own experiences living with a chronic autoimmune disease, she now puts this professional and personal experience to use as Patient Advocacy Operations Specialist for Spark. Samantha’s background includes being the donor relations director at type 1 diabetes research organization JDRF International, serving on the Global Ambassador Council for the advocacy group Beyond Type 1 and facilitating partnerships among professionals and patient advocacy groups as a founding member of the Yale Coalition for Affordable Insulin.
Samantha earned her B.S. in communication (magna cum laude) from Cornell University where she was inducted into the Golden Key International Honor Society. She then went on to graduate from Yale University with a M.P.H. in social and behavioral sciences. In 2018, she was chosen as a guest speaker for the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership panel on drug pricing.
Samantha’s drive to advocate for our patients can be summed up by a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
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call 1-855-SPARKTX / +1 215-220-9300 in the United States.
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For questions, contact us at 1-833-SPARK-PS (833-772-7577).
Spark Therapeutics is discovering and developing investigational gene therapies for debilitating inherited diseases, including inherited retinal diseases (IRDs), liver-directed diseases such as hemophilia and lysosomal storage disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. To see our current pipeline of investigational therapies, click here. For more information about our ongoing clinical trials, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov and search for “Spark Therapeutics.”
To learn more about how clinical trials work, visit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website.