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Redefining disease: an update from the NIH Undiagnosed Disease Program

There are approximately 30 million Americans living with a rare disease, and only about 5% of those diseases have a known treatment. To better understand rare diseases and conditions and to support the diagnosis of patients, the NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) was created in 2008. The UDP has worked with over 700 patients, of which, about 40% are children. Of these patients, between 25-50% of cases now have a diagnosis, although time to diagnosis has varied from one week to four years[1]. These numbers are lower for patients outside of the UDP: time to diagnosis is 4.8 years on average but can take up to 20 years[2]. Historically, the UDP has selectively accepted only about 100 new patients a year, focusing on the hardest-to-diagnose patients, with the goal of diagnosing and treating these patients to improve their livelihood.

A recent article[3] by Boerkoel et al., co-written by several members of the Monarch Initiative, describes recent advances made at the NIH UDP. The article, published in Frontiers in Medicine, is titled “Defining Disease, Diagnosis, and Translational Medicine within a Homeostatic Perturbation Paradigm: The National Institutes of Health Undiagnosed Diseases Program Experience.” Historically, diseases have been defined by experts that write about them in prose. However, definitions in free text can not easily be used by computer algorithms. The authors have pioneered new definitions of disease that capture logical relationships between diseases and symptoms; these rigorous definitions can then be leveraged in diagnostic software. This cutting-edge approach software is being used in the UDP diagnostic process, improving the speed and precision of diagnosis.

To perform the integrated analysis, the UDP group used a precision vocabulary of symptoms (Human Phenotype Ontology) together with diagnostic software such as Exomiser, PhenIX, and Exome Walker. These tools allowed comparison of patient symptoms to HPO terms, and comparison of UDP patient's phenotypic profiles to those of humans and models organisms with known diseases. Compared to manual diagnosis alone, incorporation of Exomiser software boosted rates of diagnosis by 10-20%.

To further complicate disease diagnosis, It is estimated that each person contains between 5 and 50 genetic variations that could eventually lead to a disease[4]. This amount of genetic variation can make it hard to figure out what disease the patient has. For a group of UDP patients with abnormalities of the nervous system but for whom there was no certain disease-causing gene, Exomiser prioritized 11 genes that were likely candidates for causing nervous system disease in several of the UDP patients; however, the gene variations observed in patients were not previously described in the scientific literature. To test the hypothesis, laboratory experiments were done in fruit flies engineered to have the same gene variations as the patients. In each case, the altered gene led to behavioral defects and a shortened lifespan in the fly. Taken together, these results suggest that each of the 11 genes is important for nervous system function in humans. These results also support the need for laboratory animals in rare disease research, both for diagnosis and for the development of therapies.

Importantly, the UDP group focused on making their research translational and scalable by building a “village” of global experts. The group created virtual communities to enable collaboration across the globe to increase knowledge of rare diseases and improve patient diagnosis. While the UDP is less than a decade old, their work will have a long-lasting impact on previously undiagnosed patients and their families, within the UDP and beyond.


A portion of the UDP data is made publicly available on the Monarch Initiative website, with a focus on comparing UDP data to model organisms and known diseases.

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