Rare Diseases Report 2022

NORD Rare Disease Centers of Excellence: A new network seeks to break down barriers in rare disease care


In November 2021, the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) announced that it had designated 31 institutions across the United States as “NORD Rare Disease Centers of Excellence.” More than just a stamp of approval, the new NORD network aims to change the way rare diseases are diagnosed and treated, creating more efficient pathways for collaboration among physicians, while helping patients get better care closer to home.

Ed Neilan, MD, PhD, is chief scientific and medical officer at the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).

Dr. Ed Neilan

To understand better how the nascent network can benefit patients and clinicians, Neurology Reviews/MDedge Neurology spoke with Ed Neilan, MD, PhD, NORD’s chief scientific and medical officer. Dr. Neilan, a pediatrician and geneticist, is a former president of the medical staff at Boston Children’s Hospital and also served as head of global medical affairs for rare neurology at Sanofi Genzyme.

How did NORD choose its 31 centers?

We were looking for places that had both broad capabilities and deep expertise, where it was reasonable to expect that a patient with almost any condition could go and, without too many missteps or delays, get the right diagnosis or the right treatment. We also sought sites that were educating the next generation of rare disease specialists across departments. The sites had to be involved in research, because that moves the field forward, and sometimes it’s the only way to get a really impactful treatment for the 95% of rare diseases that don’t have an FDA-approved treatment. NORD sent a letter inviting different centers to apply, along with an application that had 120 questions. Most of the questions sought information about what kinds of expertise or services were available on-site, so that patients don’t have to go elsewhere to get, let’s say, a brain MRI scan or to see an immunologist. We wanted each site to be a place where you could go for almost any problem, at any age, and expect that while you’re being seen, and receiving treatment, it can also contribute to the education of the next generation of rare disease specialists and to research.

Several of the members of the network comprise more than one institution: They’re a children’s hospital combined with another facility.

Children’s hospitals, which are highly specialized and able to care for rare things in children, couldn’t apply by themselves. They had to apply in partnership with a center that could provide adult care as patients got older; otherwise, their care model would be incomplete. We’ve had some small victories already just by asking these questions and outlining this sort of approach. At one institution in the Great Plains, the director told us that he had been trying for years to get permission to hire someone who could make appointments across three different hospitals – a children’s hospital and two adult hospitals. He’d wanted to ensure that patients with rare and genetic diseases were seen in the appropriate places, and thanks to the NORD designation, he finally can. Now, regardless of age, the same office staff can handle the arrangements, and the patient will be scheduled in the right place.

You make clear that these are different from disease-specific centers of excellence – you specifically chose the 31 centers for their breadth of expertise. There’s no way to represent all 7,000 rare diseases equally, and disease-specific centers of excellence, which already exist for hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and some other conditions, have a very important role. We’re not aiming to compete with any other existing resources. What we are seeking to do is to fill the unmet need of, “What if there are no such designations for the disease that you’re concerned about?” Our goal was to find places that could help with unanswered questions, whether diagnostic questions or treatment questions. To identify places where a patient could reasonably expect to go and have a deeper dive – maybe an interdisciplinary deep dive.

The delay to diagnosis can be years in rare diseases. How can the network help speed up diagnoses?

With all these experts on different diseases, we hope to develop some better diagnostic algorithms within the network. Another thing we can do is to share resources. With 31 sites, everybody’s seeing patients with unknown diagnoses. Everyone is seeing patients for whom they would maybe like to get a whole genome done, or a whole exome done, but they are often encountering stiff resistance from insurance companies.

Meanwhile some sites, but not all 31, have multimillion-dollar grants to do sequencing and other kinds of advanced diagnostic tests to solve unknown cases. And there are people at those sites who say, “We need more samples. Can you get us samples from the other sites?”

One of the main things we aim to do is share information, including information about available diagnostic resources. We want all 31 sites to know which sites have funding and programs that enable them to study samples for other sites. We also want to know what criteria they’re putting on it. Someone might say: “I’ve got a grant to sequence genomes for people with unexplained seizures. Send me all your unexplained seizures.” Somebody else might have a grant for unexplained GI diseases. So, we want to put on our intranet a resource for the 31 sites, kind of a cookbook for – when if you can’t get it paid for by insurance, but you really think you need a particular special test – who might be able to do it for you within the network.


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