Huntington’s research returns to Latin America, as scientists tread with care


BARRANQUILLA, COLOMBIA – “We don’t like to call them brigades. That sounds militant,” said neuropsychologist Johan Acosta-López, PhD.

Dr. Acosta-López, the head of cognitive neurosciences at Simón Bolivar University in this city on Colombia’s Atlantic coast, was among five Colombian clinicians – neurologists, psychiatrists, and neuropsychologists – stuffed into a car on their way to a conference hotel in July 2018.

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The following day they would be joined by clinicians and researchers from North America, other Latin American countries, and Europe for a first-of-its kind meeting on Huntington’s disease (HD) in the region, sponsored by Factor-H, an HD charity working in Latin America.

Once the talks wrapped up, the researchers – clinicians and basic scientists – were invited to see patients at a hospital in a town an hour inland with a large concentration of HD families, most of them extremely poor. For some, the Factor-H–sponsored “brigade” would be their first hands-on experience with HD patients in a developing country.

There was some debate in the car about what to call such events: brigades, “integrated health days,” or clinics. Around here – where HD abounded but patients were weary of researchers – terminology mattered.

“We’ve had so many investigators arrive in this area – foreigners and Colombians – telling people ‘we’ve got this huge, great project that you’ll benefit from.’ And they take blood samples and never return,” Dr. Acosta-López said.

The 2018 Latin American Huntington's Disease Conference took place in Barranquilla, Colombia, July 7-8.

Even as a local investigator, Dr. Acosta-López has faced challenges getting a new study off the ground. Dr. Acosta-López and his colleagues are working under a grant from the Colombian government to recruit 241 presymptomatic subjects with confirmed genetic markers for HD, and evaluate them for cognitive and neurologic changes preceding disease onset.

It’s a cross-sectional study, and such studies are usually funded for a year. But the investigators knew it would take much more than a year to recruit patients here, and planned their study for 3 years. As of July, the team had been engaging with the community for 6 months but still didn’t have a single blood sample.

“We’ve had to convince everyone that this time is different,” he said, “and that means focusing on the social aspect” – setting up a legal-assistance program through the university to help families claim health benefits and a job-training program sponsored by local businesses.

It’s unusual for researchers to find themselves playing such extensive roles in coordinating social and economic support for their subjects. But with HD, it’s happening across Latin America, where researchers speak frequently of a “debt” owed to HD families in this region.

Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a genetic mutation in the huntingtin (HTT) gene, changing the normal protein it expresses in the body to a toxic form that damages cortical and basal ganglia neurons. It affects between 0.5 to 1 in 10,000 people worldwide, with higher prevalence in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

HD is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern; a child of a parent with the mutation has a 50% chance of developing the disease. Patients develop cognitive symptoms that progress to dementia, along with the debilitating involuntary, dancelike movements that gave the disease the name by which it was formerly known: Huntington’s chorea.

In the 1980s and 1990s, several generations of Latin American HD families provided data that allowed for some of the greatest research advances in the disease – and they may represent a large share of the world’s HD cases. Yet, they continue to live in extreme poverty and have benefited little from the findings of the past 3 decades.

Without recognizing this and working to improve the families’ well-being, the researchers at the conference said it’s unlikely that promising therapies in the pipeline will ever reach the populations that need them the most.


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