A mysterious disease has plagued this family for generations. They may be on the verge of answers

Unlocking secrets of a genetic disorder that has plagued the Deater family for generations could help millions with far more common diseases, like diabetes.

NOXEN TOWNSHIP, Pa. — A quick glance around the picnic tables was enough to tell who had the genetic mutation and who didn’t. A few of the relatives gathered here before the start of their 75th family reunion fidgeted constantly, brushing away the insistent bugs. Others didn’t seem bothered at all. Their nerve damage left them unable to feel the tiny creatures.

A genetic glitch has disabled members of at least six generations of the Deater family, leaving them with gnarled fingers, damaged feet, and explosive pains. The mutation remains so rare that the relatives make up the majority of affected patients in the United States; the condition is nicknamed Deater Disease after Alvin Deater, who was born in the late 1800s and passed it on to seven of his 12 children.

Even as they anxiously watch each new generation, wondering where the symptoms will surface, the family is fighting back. For decades, Alvin’s descendants have subjected themselves to poking and prodding, blood draws and scans to help doctors better understand — and hopefully alter — their genetic fate.

As it turns out, the research could eventually help millions around the world. The nerve fiber damage that causes such misery in the Deater family looks very similar to the damage that causes people with type

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