By Amber Dance of Nature magazine

Those wanting to raise awareness about a rare disease will be able to take advantage of an initiative being launched later this year: a website that connects research projects with members of the public who can donate just a few dollars to help to develop cures.

The plan, called the Global Genes Fund, will "democratize the research proposal game", says Irwin Feller, an emeritus professor of the economics of science and technology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

The idea has been developed by the Children's Rare Disease Network, a non-profit organization based in Dana Point, California. The network plans to set up a test site by the end of 2011, with a formal launch in 2012. Potential funders will be able to choose from projects with funding goals of US$10,000-150,000. The fund will post proposals that are deemed by its committee to be likely to succeed within three to five years -- that is, within the often-short lifetimes of people currently affected by the diseases.

Rare, or 'orphan', diseases are defined as those that afflict five or fewer people out of every 10,000 in the European Union or fewer than 200,000 Americans. The diseases are devastating but overlooked. Pharmaceutical companies are naturally interested in blockbuster drugs that will be taken by many people, whereas governments are often perceived as focusing their limited resources on more common conditions.

There is some funding: for example, in 2009 the National Institutes of Health announced US$24 million for the Therapies for Rare and Neglected Diseases program to developing medicines for orphan diseases. But there is simply not enough money to support research on all rare diseases. There are some 7,000 orphan diseases affecting an estimated 350 million people worldwide. Of those, 75% are children, says Nicole Boice, founder and chief executive of the Children's Rare Disease Network. Parents often shoulder the burden of advocacy, running cake sales and other fund-raising events to support research.

Many hands

With the Global Genes Fund, Boice hopes to raise money and awareness to a level that is impossible for individual parents and scientists. She was inspired by the success of microloan website Kiva.org. On Kiva, users browse a list of individuals worldwide who need a small loan to pay for business expenses, home improvements or other projects. Through loans of as little as $25, Kiva has raised $22 million since it was founded in 2005.

The Global Genes Fund will solicit money for defined short-term projects, Boice says. For example, it might support whole-genome sequencing for a child with an undiagnosed disorder. Or it might pay for children with a rare condition to travel to a trial centre.

The fund will also seek corporate sponsorship. Those larger gifts will help to cover projects that don't receive sufficient micro-donations, Boice says.

"It's not just the funds, it's the awareness" that the fund will raise, says Audrey Gordon, president and executive director of the Progeria Research Foundation, based in Peabody, Massachusetts. The foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes the study of progeria, which causes rapid ageing. The global nature of the new fund means that more families affected by rare diseases will find others dealing with the same problems, advocates say.

"There's a serious lack of funding for these various rare diseases," says Chris Hempel, a Reno, Nevada-based advocate and mother of twin girls who have Niemann-Pick type C disease also referred to as 'childhood Alzheimer's'. "We're all in the same boat and no one's getting drugs."

Regarding the fund, "I think it's an extremely interesting project", says Steve Groft, director of the NIH's office of rare disease research. "It will meet the needs of some of the rare-disease-community members." Even a tiny $50,000 pilot trial could give researchers enough data to apply for more funding, he adds.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on June 27, 2011.