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Story of boy with ultra-rare UBA5 disorder being studied at UMass Chan goes to the moon

Raiden Pham

Parents of children with rare diseases go to endless lengths to raise funds and awareness for research that might lead to a cure. Now, the story of 4-year-old Raiden Pham has been to the moon. He has an ultra-rare neurodegenerative disease known as UBA5 disorder that UMass Chan Medical School researchers are targeting.

The story of Raiden’s journey and its message of love, hope and strength is included on an indestructible digital time capsule of art, music, film and history, as part of the Lunaprise Moon Museum Mission, which was onboard the Odysseus spacecraft that landed on the moon Feb. 22.

“When we think about gene therapy, or any kind of cure or treatment for these rare diseases, it’s always considered a moonshot, but that’s not the case anymore in today’s world,” said Tommy Pham, Raiden’s father. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to save my son and kids with UBA5 disorder and hopefully inspire the next generation of rare disease parents to go on this fight and have hope.”

Since 2021, the Raiden Science Foundation, founded by Tommy and Linda Pham, of Beaverton, Oregon, on behalf of their son, has raised around $1 million of its $4 million goal, which supports research in UMass Chan’s Translational Institute for Molecular Therapeutics and other partner institutions.

The research on UBA5 is led by Toloo Taghian, PhD, instructor in radiology in the lab of Heather Gray-Edwards, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of radiology in the Horae Gene Therapy Center.  

Dr. Taghian has identified the top two viral vector constructs for UBA5 expression in-vivo, which show great promise in successfully delivering UBA5 gene therapy to the targeted cells. Taghian and her team are now testing their efficacy in correcting the protein malfunction and treating the underlying cause of this disease and will soon initiate toxicology studies to assess their safety.  

“Working with Raiden Science Foundation to develop a gene therapy for UBA5 has been an impactful journey,” said Taghian. “The dedication of the Pham family in supporting UBA5 research allows the UMass Chan team to work toward unpacking the basic science underlying this ultra-rare disease in parallel with our gene therapy development program.”

How Raiden’s story got to the moon was a journey of persistent efforts to raise awareness and support by the Phams. In October 2022, Raiden Science Foundation held a gaming charity stream, Kombat4Rare, based on the Mortal Kombat franchise. One of the main characters in Mortal Kombat is Raiden, named after the God of Thunder in Japanese mythology.

The response from the gaming and entertainment community was enthusiastic, and a few months later Tommy Pham was invited to be featured at a charity event in Marina del Rey, California. Dallas Santana, founder of Space Blue, the exclusive curator of the Lunaprise Museum, was touched by Tommy’s message and told him Raiden’s story should be included on the Lunaprise Moon Museum to inspire people on Earth.

Noting that it has been more than 50 years since the last American space capsule landed on the moon, Tommy said, “We don’t have to wait another 50 years for gene therapy. It could be done now in the coming years. We need to figure out a way with all the right stakeholders to unlock gene therapy for so many other kids suffering different rare diseases, not just us.”

Donations to support UBA5 gene therapy at UMass Chan can be made here.