Technology helps Amish confront medical disorders
Clinic serves unique genetic needs of Amish and Mennonite populationBy Tim Huber Mennonite World Review
A building stands in Jakob Stoltzfoos’ cornfield near Strasburg, Pa. Outside are hitching posts. Inside are an Ion Torrent DNA sequencer and a host of high-tech lab equipment.
All are part of the Clinic for Special Children, which sits at the intersection of molecular genetics and the relatively limited gene pool of Old Order Mennonites and Amish in eastern Pennsylvania.
Since taking part in groundbreaking 1963 Johns Hopkins University studies, the Amish and plain Mennonites have been famous for a high propensity for certain conditions, including metabolic disorders.
The Johns Hopkins research inspired Holmes Morton, who would become founder and director of the Clinic for Special Children. In the late 1980s he had a hunch that glutaric aciduria — an inherited form of cerebral palsy that perplexed physicians at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — could be managed if caught with screening soon after birth.
“If we were going to help the child, we had to find them before they were disabled, rather than try to rebuild the brain,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
He applied for a grant to screen newborns and identify how they became ill, but was turned down in 1988.
“I think that was the best thing to happen, because it forced my wife and me to find a way to research,” Morton said. “We started a nonprofit organization. My wife ran the business side, I did the pediatric side and the lab work.
“We were very successful out of the gate, which gave me the confidence there was something we could do for these children.”
But scientific success doesn’t always translate to financial success. It wasn’t until The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on the situation in 1989 that money and equipment flowed in.
Morton then turned his attention to other conditions common to Lancaster area families.
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