Illustration: A. Canamucio
Orphan diseases are those with patient populations so small that drug companies generally don't make money if they come up with a remedy. The National Organization for Rare Disorders lists 1,100 of these afflictions in its database, from Aarskog syndrome, an extremely rare birth defect with structural abnormalities and mild mental retardation, to Zollinger Ellison syndrome, presenting gastric tumors that secrete excessive hormone amounts. Subsets of rare disorders, such as leukodystrophy, may include only a handful of sufferers, and perhaps just one (documented).

Oddly, though, rare diseases may become the norm in the future of medicine, as genomics--in defining diseases by their genetic origins rather than physical symptoms--breaks down large patient populations to smaller and smaller groups, and perhaps eventually addressing individual expressions. Cancer, for example, is not one disease, nor even "many," but may be a historical term with as many forms as there are people...

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