(This is cross-posted from the Fireside Science blog at SciFund Challenge.)

We care about our health and the health of our loved ones. If only we had explanations and cures for all of humanity’s illnesses. But there are still many diseases that aren’t being researched, even though they cause real and obvious suffering.

Medical research is paid for in a number of ways. The obvious one is the drug companies, where there’s a cost-benefit consideration. I’ll discuss the other options, and how it works in Australia.

The biggest pool of money comes from the government. We have the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which runs several grant funding schemes each year. There are also some Fellowships that provide researchers with a secure salary for up to five years. Research grants typically last three years, and they usually include salaries for scientists working on the project. Only 16.9% of Project Grant applications were funded for this year. And the competition gets stiffer every year. So this is clearly not a reliable source of funding for most research wish lists. In the words of the crowdfunding site microryza, “Our system for funding science is broken. Our planet’s biggest funders are so conservative that they fund … only the most obvious ideas. Discoveries that matter are languishing.”

Charitable giving picks up a lot of research that the government doesn’t fund. Besides the work they do supporting patients and their families, some patient advocate groups raise funds for research. There are also private citizens who set up research trusts, and many many more who donate to research. Most of these charities and trusts pull less weight than the government grants, but there are some very large ones based overseas, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

There’s also a new movement known as crowdfunding. You may have heard of Kickstarter. There are other crowdfunding sites specifically for scientific research. Examples are microryza (now renamed experiment), Petridish, and SciFund Challenge. There have been some remarkable successes like the microbiome project but most projects ask for a modest amount. Researchers are turning to crowdfunding more and more as other sources of funding become harder to get.

So there’s a limited pot of money for research. Who decides what it’s used for? Government grants are hotly contested. One of the tasks of the grant writer is to convince the reviewers that theirs is an important problem and the team has the expertise to solve it. Some charitable trusts have a similar review system, but it can also vary quite a lot and can depend on the wishes of the donors. Crowdfunding cuts out the middle man and it’s the donor who must be convinced that the project is worthwhile.

So, why isn’t there more research into your disease and what can you do about it?

You will need researchers who have an interest in your disease and some funding. Which brings us to awareness. Greater awareness by governments, policy makers, researchers, and doctors who make diagnoses will help your case. Under-recognition of rare diseases is a huge problem which can also be addressed by awareness.

The common and high profile diseases such as cancer get a lot of research dollars. Their severity and impact on the community are obvious. Rare diseases don’t have this advantage. Rare Disease Day is an annual event that advocates for people with diseases, syndromes and conditions that occur in fewer than one in 2,000 people. Rare Disease Day is coming up – most years it falls on the 28th February, but every fourth year or 1,461st day it falls on that rare date – 29th February.

Patient advocate groups that offer research grants can have some influence. They can offer grants that are targeted to a specific disease or question. This can help them find researchers with the appropriate expertise, and attract researchers who are looking for funding. They can use the funds that have been raised specifically to improve the lives of the people they support. Crowdfunding is also a great way to target donors who are keen to support the cause.

About 80% of rare diseases are caused by genetic errors. Humans have over 3,000,000,000 letters in their genetic makeup, and these spell out over 20,000 pairs of genes. Many genetic diseases are caused by a one letter error in one of these genes. The human DNA sequence is now mostly known, so it’s possible to read the DNA sequence of the patient and compare it to a standard to find a needle-in-a-haystack DNA error. Unfortunately not all genetic diseases are that straightforward – but it’s a start.

Recently there have been some heart-warming examples of very rare but debilitating diseases for which the causes have been found with the help of sequencing and a persistent parent, being in the right place at the right time, or scientists who were looking for a problem to solve. These are some of the good news stories of modern genetics that are starting to make an impact on rare diseases.

If you want to help make a difference my advice is to support your disease’s patient advocate group, fundraise and lobby for research. If there isn’t a support group for your disease, you could start one. If your disease is rare, Rare Disease Day is there to help. And anyone can help raise awareness about a disease. Better awareness brings better understanding.


Cracking the code – transcript of the Australian Story episode on ABC TV. A father’s quest to find the gene mutation causing his son’s disease.

Genome maps solve medical mystery for Calif. twins – Shots – Health news from NPR.

We gained hope.” The story of Lilly Grossman’s genome – National Geographic’s Phenomena – Not Exactly Rocket Science

James Lupski’s Research into His Disease Paved Way Toward Personalized Medicine – Quest (MDA Magazine Online – Fighting Muscle Disease)

The Solution to Diagnostic Delay May Be Closer Than We Think – blog post by the National Organization for Rare Disorders arguing that a rare disease app may help doctors diagnose rare diseases: “…most… rare diseases are unfamiliar to doctors… When doctors are unable to explain patients’ symptoms — as they are for at least three years in the majority of rare disease cases — psychiatric diagnosis is made by default.”