Jana and Tom Monaco have four children and two, Stephen and Caroline, were born with isovaleric acidemia (IVA) and secondary carnitine deficiency, a rare metabolic disorder. This genetic condition prevents the body from producing enzymes to break down the amino acid leucine, found in many proteins – from nuts and beans to chicken and fish. If undetected, the condition, which affects about one in 250,000 children, can be fatal. IVA can also lead to autism or severe brain damage. Fortunately, newborn screenings in every state now detect most IVA cases.
Eighteen years ago, a series of events happened with Stephen, age 3.5 at the time, which led to his diagnosis of having IVA and secondary carnitine deficiency. He celebrated his grandmother’s birthday with a family dinner on Memorial Day. The next day he woke up with symptoms of a stomach virus, which the family treated as such. The following morning he didn’t wake up at all. Jana went to his room to check on him and realized something was wrong. She called an ambulance and within 24 hours Stephen fell into a coma in her arms. He was immediately put on life support at a Virginia hospital.
Amy Lewanda, M.D., a geneticist, and Craig Futterman, M.D., an intensivist, both of whom now work at Children’s National Health System, delivered news about the condition: IVA is an inability for the IVD gene to create enzymes to break down protein. Within a 24- to 48-hour period, Stephen’s body flooded with isovaleric acid it couldn’t break down. Once the acid reached his brain he was paralyzed. Jana mentions you could find him in the emergency department of the hospital by following the odor: He reeked of ketones and isovaleric acid, which accumulated in his blood and body tissue. His blood glucose level was so low that he was practically in a diabetic coma.
If the Monaco family was able to get his blood checked locally at the hospital – which the clinicians did not yet have the ability to do because this condition is so rare – they may have been able to receive an early diagnosis, enabling them to intervene in infancy, as they did with their youngest daughter, Caroline.
After the diagnosis, in hindsight, Jana and Tom recognized Stephen’s symptoms as a toddler: picky eating, anemia, rejection of protein-rich foods, such as favoring jelly over peanut butter on a PB&J sandwich, opting for easy carbs, since they are easier for those with IVA to process, and breastfeeding longer, since breast milk is lower in protein. He had a peculiar odor trailing from his diaper, a common symptom of this condition. They also remembered he had a harder time recovering from a stomach virus, which left him weak and floppy, compared to one of his brothers, who had the same flu but bounced back faster. As parents, they did everything they could to promote healthy growth and development for their children – from properly installing car seats to staying up-to-date on vaccines and enrolling everyone in activities, like Little League. They only wished they could have detected this condition earlier.
A second chance arrived six months after Stephen was diagnosed with IVA: Jana and Tom learned they were pregnant with Caroline. From studying Stephen’s condition, they knew Caroline had a 25 percent chance of having IVA and secondary carnitine deficiency. (Jana and Tom are recessive carriers for a mutated IVD gene, but remain asymptomatic.) They scheduled an amniocentesis, a prenatal test that provides information about a baby’s health from sample amniotic fluid, which can diagnose genetic defects and fetal infections. Caroline was just 16 weeks in utero, but abnormal metabolites from the amniotic fluid sample confirmed she had IVA and secondary carnitine deficiency.
Having advance knowledge about the condition enabled doctors and geneticists to create a plan for her delivery, which made a difference between her long-term prognosis and Stephen’s. After birth, she was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s National. She was fed a formula that prevented excess isovaleric acid build-up, part of an hour-by-hour protocol to ensure she stayed healthy. Caroline is now 16. She plays the viola in her school orchestra, rides horses and excels in school.
When Stephen was born, the state of Virginia, where the Monaco family lives, screened for eight prenatal conditions, such as PKU, a rare but more common condition. The state now screens for 31 conditions, thanks in part to Jana, Stephen and Caroline. The list grows as research evolves. Jana started advocating for these efforts in Richmond and on Capitol Hill when Caroline was 2. Her approach: Take Stephen and Caroline to her state capitol and to the U.S. Capitol to push for statewide newborn screenings – visually showing the same condition, but with two very different outcomes. How could anyone say no?
She worked with the Virginia Genetics Advisory Council and with the Health and Human Services Secretary Advisory Committee to pass the legislation, which helped detect other organic acidemias – inherited conditions that prevent babies from breaking down amino acids found in protein, creating potentially toxic situations, similar to Stephen’s. They advocated for adding other conditions to the panel, like severe combined immunodeficiency, commonly referred to as “bubble boy” syndrome. Stephan was the only newborn screening advocate in attendance with a disability. Now all 50 states have implemented these screenings.
The family isn’t done yet. On Oct. 26, Stephen will celebrate his 22nd birthday and a fifth-annual golf tournament, created in his honor, to raise awareness about and support for IVA and similar conditions. The Monaco family started this tradition in 2015 on Stephen’s 18th birthday and have raised $100,000 for the genetics division at Children’s National. They hope Stephen’s legacy will leave others with a message they keep framed in their Virginia home: Learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow.
They educate Caroline along the way, noting the annual golf tournament and their advocacy supports ongoing IVA research and care – ensuring that she and others with these rare metabolic conditions continue to live a long, healthy life, echoing their longstanding partnership with Children’s National to help children grow up stronger.