Professors tag-team rare disease research


The Rare Disease Day Symposium will take place in the Prince Conference Center at 8:30 p.m. Photo courtesy Calvin College.

This past January, biology professor Amy Wilstermann and chemistry and biochemistry professor Rachael Baker taught their first rare diseases interim course. The course centered on research into diseases that affect less than 200,000 people worldwide. Taking a unique approach, both professors paired presentation of research and lab activities with presentations by individuals impacted by the diseases either personally or through research.

Baker said that though these diseases affect relatively few people, because there are over 7,000 of them, and they affect roughly one in 10 people.

“The chances are that you know someone with a rare disease,” she said.

This rare disease research presented a unique opportunity for researchers at a small college, Baker said, in part because there is less competition for research in each area.

And they present a unique learning experience as well.

“From a scientific perspective, rare diseases are really interesting because they are single changes to a single protein or gene in the cell and then you get to see the implications systemwide. So it gives you a chance to really understand what’s the role of this protein and how [it impacts] various organs, various networks throughout the body,” said Baker.

Regan Bond, a senior chemistry and biochemistry major said that the course shifted her perspective.

“It brought out a lot of different sides of medicine that people don’t usually think of,” said Bond. “It definitely opens your eyes as a future medical professional to think about rare diseases as a potential cause of the person’s issues.”

Bond said that a presentation by Calvin philosophy professor Kevin Timpe, whose son lives with a rare disease, caused her to question whether she’d looked past patients in her clinical experience.

“Have I ever done that? I’m wondering if I ever spoke to the parent over the patient instead of speaking to them both,” she said. “I think it’s a really good reminder that the patient comes first and the person comes first. And their rare disease is not necessarily their whole being.”

Baker and Wilstermann are seeking to make Calvin a community hub for the study of rare diseases, offering a place to share information, stories and support.

On March 3, Calvin will host the first Rare Disease Day which will feature some of the same speakers from the interim course and will be open to the public.

For more information, visit Calvin’s website.