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Rare disease group finds advocacy and looks for answers at Sanford Health

Apr 27, 2018 11:40AM ● By MED Magazine

A dedicated Board of Directors for an international nonprofit organization representing those who have Alagille Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that can affect the liver and other organs, recently met with the Sanford Health researcher hoping to cure their disease.

The Alagille Syndrome Alliance, which began in 1993 as a newsletter to two families, has grown to a nonprofit that serves families around the world looking for advice, advocacy and answers for their genetic conditions. The international board includes members from the U.K., Canada and India, as well as the United States.

In 2017, the ALGSA board decided to migrate its data to Coordination of Rare Disease at Sanford (CoRDS), a free database which began in 2010 and now serves nearly 5,000 people representing more than 770 rare diseases. The free registry offered them an opportunity to create disease-specific questionnaires and connect to Sanford Research laboratories and specialists.

“CoRDS is so proactive about data collection and communication,” said Cindy Luxhoj, founder and executive director of the Alagille Syndrome Alliance. “CoRDS also provides our families and those affected by ALGS an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to research and move ALGS science forward toward a cure.”

The group took it a step further earlier this year, when several members traveled to South Dakota to meet with Kameswaran Surrendran, Ph.D., an associate scientist with Sanford Health who is doing research on Alagille Syndrome.

“Meeting with him was fantastic,” Luxhoj said. “He had all these questions for us, and we had so many for him.”

Anna Laurent, who has Alagille Syndrome, agreed. She met with Surrendran and also connected with others from ALGSA at a conference in Sioux Falls in 2018.

“In a world where your disease is so rare that you are 1 in 70,000, it was such a big moment to know that I was not alone,” Laurent said of her many experiences connecting with other families over the years. “When you meet these young warriors who are singing to ‘Frozen,’ singing Disney songs, and their parents are just starting on this journey, that’s the reason we need research.”

Researching rare diseases and bringing patients, scientists and physicians together is an integral part of what Sanford Health does, said David Pearce, Ph.D., executive vice president of research and innovation at Sanford.

“I see these families, and I see how they are searching for answers, and how their lives have been affected,” Pearce said. “We know we can make a difference, and every day we are asking questions and working with different groups to find answers.”

Sanford Health physicians and leaders will be among the international experts presenting on rare diseases and other topics at the Fourth International Vatican Conference in Rome, Italy, on April 26 - 28.

The conference, “Unite to Cure: “The Fourth International Vatican Conference – How Science, Technology and 21st Century Medicine Will Impact Culture and Society,” brings together leaders in health care, science and research from around the world as part of the Cura Foundation conference, which is held every other year in Rome. This is the second time Sanford Health has presented at the invite-only event. Robin Smith, M.D., president of the foundation, also serves on the Sanford International Board.

“What we are doing today could actually impact someone’s life,” Surrendran said. “There is still a long way to go, but every day we are doing something meaningful.”

To learn more about Unite To Cure: The Fourth International Vatican Conference, please visit: Or, you can follow the event on Twitter @CuraFdn and on Facebook at, and join the conversation with #UnitetoCure.