Sonia Vallabh and Eric Minikel found themselves faced with a devastating reality – a reality that threatened to steal away their hopes, dreams, and ultimately, their lives. In the bustling city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sonia Vallabh and her husband Eric Minikel embarked on a remarkable journey that would redefine their lives and ignite their passion for scientific discovery.
In 2010, Sonia watched helplessly as her vibrant and artistic mother, Kamni Vallabh, succumbed to a rapid and mysterious dementia. She witnessed her mother’s memory fade away, her ability to reason vanish, and her once vibrant spirit trapped in a state of confusion and discomfort. Kamni, at the young age of 51, was disappearing into the depths of a rare prion disease known as fatal familial insomnia.
Little did Sonia know that this devastating disease would not only steal her mother’s life but also pose a grave threat to her own existence. A year after Kamni’s passing, Sonia received the devastating news that she had inherited the same genetic mutation responsible for her mother’s untimely demise. Suddenly, her life took an unexpected turn, and the quest for survival became the driving force behind every decision she made.
Sonia, armed with a B.A. from Swarthmore College, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and a Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Harvard University, made a courageous choice. She left behind her promising career in law and consulting, and together with Eric, retrained as a scientist, dedicating their lives to finding a way to halt the progression of this disease.
Their journey led them to the prestigious Broad Institute, where Sonia now co-leads an initiative to develop preventive drugs for prion disease. The focus of their research lies in the discovery and preclinical development of drugs that lower prion protein (PrP), a validated strategy to delay the onset of the disease. Sonia’s relentless efforts also involve establishing a clinical pathway for preventive drug development and spearheading a natural history study to assess fluid biomarkers in individuals at risk.
With each passing day, Sonia and Eric navigate the complex world of biomedical science, fueled by an unyielding determination to prevent Sonia from falling victim to this cruel disease. Theirs is a race against time, as the average onset of symptoms looms around the age of 50, but can strike as early as 12 or as late as 84. They understand the urgency and the need to get ahead of the disease, relentlessly pursuing innovative approaches to protect Sonia’s future.
However, their path is not without challenges. The medical establishment traditionally focuses on treating those who are already sick, making it difficult for Sonia to convince them to act upstream and consider apparently healthy individuals like herself as patients. This paradigm shift is necessary to identify and intervene at the earliest stages of disease progression, a concept echoed by other trailblazers in the medical field like Dr. Reisa Sperling, who studies Alzheimer’s disease.
Sonia and Eric’s aspirations extend beyond research and discovery. They seek to revolutionize the way clinical trials are conducted by finding alternative approaches to determine the effectiveness of potential treatments. Instead of subjecting patients to long-term trials, they strive to identify biomarkers that can serve as indicators of treatment success, paving the way for more efficient and ethical research practices.
Undeterred by the enormity of the challenge they face, Sonia and Eric press forward with an unwavering spirit. Their shared office and lab bench at the Broad Institute serve as the backdrop for countless hours of research, collaboration, and innovation. Guided by their mentor, Stuart Schreiber, they work tirelessly to unravel the mysteries of prion diseases and find a path forward.