A Eufaula veterinary family is helping to kick off a social media campaign — #CureGM1 — to inform the public about a fatal disease and raise money to support research for a cure at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Jim ’83 and Anne ’80 Gardner, who own Gardner Animal Hospital in Eufaula, learned through social media about the lifesaving research being conducted at the college’s Scott-Ritchey Research Center for GM1 gandliosidosis, a lysosomal storage disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord, and is a progressive and degenerative condition that is always fatal in children.
The Gardners first learned of the disease six years ago when they became owners of Seaworthy Portuguese Water dogs. Breeders are required to test dogs for the disease, which has virtually been eradicated from the breed because of testing and breeding selection.
Last year, however, the disease became even more personal for the Gardners when they met the Heatherly family, whose son, Porter, has the most severe form of GM1.
Porter, who will turn four years old Sept. 14, was diagnosed with the disease at just four months old. Parents Sara and Michael Heatherly turned to the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Doug Martin and his team of researchers to find out about the research they are doing to find a cure, and how the family could help spread the message for a cure for GM1. For those at Auburn working toward a cure for animals and humans, Porter and his parents have renewed their passion for their work.
The Gardner family, because of his veterinary career and their love of animals, quickly became close friends with the Heatherlys, and attended Porter’s third birthday party last year, a fundraising effort for GM1 research, which raised more than $35,000.
This year, the Gardners want to do more, and they are encouraging veterinarians, veterinary clinics and the public to show their support for Auburn’s research and the Heatherly family.
“We want to help fund this important research and show the Heatherly family the support from the veterinary community and the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine,” said Anne Gardner.
“We feel like we were put into this position, as breeders and a veterinarian to help, and we want to encourage others to join us,” said Dr. Jim Gardner.
The Gardners, along with their staff at the Gardner Animal Hospital, are kicking off the #CureGM1 social media campaign. To join them, make a donation through the Auburn University Foundation, print the #CureGM1 flyer on the website, take a photograph of yourself and others with it, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The college will post the photographs on its social media.
“We hope that our veterinary colleagues and clinics around Alabama and beyond, as well as members of the community, will show their support for the research and Porter,” Anne Gardner said. “I’m proud to know that Auburn veterinary researchers have continued this work for decades and that they have found a cure for the disease in animals, and are moving it to human medicine.
“There are other diseases that are connected to GM1 and this research as a whole will help many different diseases,” she added.
“As owners we learned about the disease, but when you see a child and family like the Heatherlys, it gives the disease an entirely new meaning, and it gives us an added purpose.”
“And as a veterinarian, who has an oath to use scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society, wanting to help cure GM1 is an extension of that commitment I made as a veterinarian,” Dr. Jim Gardner said, who earned the DVM from Auburn in 1983.
For four decades, Scott-Ritchey researchers have sought a cure for GM1 gangliosidosis, a rare, neurodegenerative disease found in animals and humans. Dr. Doug Martin and a team of scientists at the Scott-Ritchey Research Center believe they are close to a major advancement in treatment of the disease. His research, anextension of work that began by mentors Dr. Henry Baker and the late Dr. Nancy Cox, uses gene therapy to produce enzymes found missing in GM1 and Tay-Sachs-related diseases. That therapy is expected to be in clinical trials next year.
Martin and his team have successfully extended the life expectancy of cats by more than five times compared to non-treated GM1 cats with the use of gene therapy, a non-harmful viral vector to produce enzymes missing in GM1 and Tay-Sachs-related diseases.
In 2013, scientists met the Heatherly family, when parents Michael and Sara, both Auburn alumni, received the devastating GM1 diagnosis for their son, Porter. Children with the most severe form of GM1, like Porter has, typically have a life expectancy of just two years.
The family celebrates Porter’s birthday each month, on the 14th, and this year, they are planning a special fundraising party to honor his fourth birthday on Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Auburn University Club. To learn how you can attend Porter’s birthday party, click here.