How One Woman Deciphered Her Own Genetic Mutation

The next week, the Goodsells finished their renovation, packed up and headed into the Sierra Nevadas with no return date in sight. It was an unorthodox solution to a life-threatening heart condition: to vanish into the boondocks, far away from any medical care, to do even more exercise.

The thing is, it was the right one. The outdoors rejuvenated her. She was gone for one-and-a-half years, and her heart behaved the whole way through. That unbroken streak only broke when the Goodsells rejoined their old lives in 1997. Back in California, they were once again cycling down Highway 1 when her heart started to beat erratically again. This time, it did not stop.

By the time the paramedics arrived, Kim was slumped against a wall and her chest was shaking. Her tachycardia had lasted for almost an hour and progressed to ventricular fibrillation—that is, her heartbeat was erratic as well as fast. She blacked out in the ambulance, on the cusp of cardiac arrest. She woke up at Scripps Memorial Hospital. The same cardiologist was there to greet her. Through further tests he discovered that the muscle of her right ventricle was marbled with fat and scar tissue and not contracting properly. These are classic signs of ARVC. It had only been properly described in 1982, back when Kim was regularly signing up for triathlons. ARVC is a major cause of fatal heart attacks in young people, and athletes are especially vulnerable as exercise can accelerate the disease’s progress. And since Kim wouldn’t stop exercising, she finally conceded to the defibrillator. They implanted it the next day.

Kim referred to the implant as her “internal terrorist.” Every shock was debilitating and led to months of anxiety. She had to learn to cope with the device, and it took several years to regain the joy she drew from hardcore exercise. That was when the other symptoms started.

* * *

These diseases are rare. In a crowd of a million adults, around 400 will have Charcot-Marie-Tooth and between 200 and 400 will have ARVC. But genetic diseases in general are actually quite common—8 percent of people have at least one. This paradoxical combination has fueled the rise of many online communities where people with rare disorders can find each other. Heidi Rehm, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, studies a condition called Norrie disease that mostly affects the eyes and ears. She developed a registry for Norrie disease patients to share their experiences, and learned that almost all the men with the disease had erectile dysfunction. “A patient goes to their doctor with blindness and deafness, and erectile dysfunction isn’t the first thing you ask about!” says Rehm. “Patients drove that discovery.” Through communities, families often make connections about their medical problems that their doctors miss.

But Kim was never one for relying on others. She tried a support group when she got her implant, but it did nothing for her. She dipped her toes in patient forums, but was always frustrated by the rampant misinformation. “People just weren’t interpreting things correctly,” Kim says. “I wanted more rigor.”

She started by diving into PubMed—an online search engine for biomedical papers—hunting down everything she could on Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She hoped that her brief fling with a scientific education would carry her through. But with pre-med knowledge that had been gathering dust for 30 years and no formal training in genetics, Kim quickly ran headfirst into a wall of unfamiliar concepts and impenetrable jargon. “It was like reading Chinese,” she says.

But she persisted. She scratched around in Google until she found uploaded PDFs of the articles she wanted. She would read an abstract and Google every word she didn’t understand. When those searches snowballed into even more jargon, she’d Google that too. The expanding tree of gibberish seemed infinite—apoptosis, phenotypic, desmosome—until, one day, it wasn’t. “You get a feeling for what’s being said,” Kim says. “Pretty soon you start to learn the language.”

“Kim has an incredible ability to understand the genetic literature,” says Martha Grogan, a cardiologist from the Mayo Clinic and an old friend of CB’s who now coordinates Kim’s care. “We have a lot of patients who ask great questions but with Kim, it’s like having another research fellow.”

At the time the Goodsells were staying at a friend’s house at Lake Michigan. Kim would sit on the balcony for eight hours a day, listening to the water and teaching herself genetics. Too weak to explore winding hillside trails, she channelled her perseverance and love of isolation towards scientific frontiers and the spiraling helices of her own DNA. “I spent hundreds of hours,” she says. “CB lost me during this process.”

Kim looked at every gene linked to Charcot-Marie-Tooth—there are more than 40 overall, each one imparting a slightly different character to the disease. One leapt out: LMNA, which codes for a group of rope-like proteins that mesh into a tangled network at the centre of our cells. This ‘nuclear lamina’ provides cells with structural support, and interacts with a bunch of other proteins to influence everything from the packaging and activation of genes to the suicide of damaged cells. Given this central role, it makes sense that mutations in LMNA are responsible for at least 15 different diseases, more than any other human gene. These laminopathies comprise a bafflingly diverse group—nerve disorders (like Charcot-Marie-Tooth), wasting diseases of fat and muscle, and even premature aging.

As Kim read about these conditions and their symptoms, she saw her entire medical history reflected back at her—the contracted muscles in her neck and back, her slightly misaligned hips and the abnormal curve in her spine. She saw her Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

She also saw a heart disorder linked to the LMNA gene that wasn’t ARVC but which doctors sometimes mistake for it. “Everything was encapsulated,” she says. “It was like an umbrella over all of my phenotypes. I thought: This has to be the unifying principle.” 

* * *

Kim was convinced that she had found the cause of her two diseases, but the only way to know for sure was to get the DNA of her LMNA gene sequenced to see if she had a mutation. First, she had to convince scientists that she was right. She started with Grogan, presenting her with the findings of her research. Grogan was impressed, but pragmatic. Even if Kim was right, it would not change her fate. Her implant was keeping her heart problems under control, and her Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease was incurable. He didn’t see a point. But Kim did. “I wanted to know,” she says. “Even if you have a terrible prognosis, the act of knowing assuages anxiety. There’s a sense of empowerment.”

In November 2010 Kim presented her case to Ralitza Gavrilova, a medical geneticist at the Mayo Clinic. She got a frosty reception. Gavrilova told Kim that her odds of being right were slim. “I got this sense that she thought I’d made an unfounded shot in the dark,” says Kim. “That I didn’t understand the complexity of the genome. That I had been reading the internet, and they come up with all sorts of things there.”

Gavrilova pushed Kim towards a different test, which would look at seven genes linked to ARVC. Her insurance would cover that, but if she insisted on sequencing the DNA of her LMNA gene, she would have to foot a $3,000 bill herself. Why waste the money, when it was such an unlikely call? But Kim was insistent. She knew that the known ARVC genes explain only a minority of cases and that none of them was linked to neural problems. In all her searching she had found only one that covered both her heart and nervous problem. Eventually, Gavrilova relented.

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Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer based in London.

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