A papal audience for families affected by the inherited brain disease could end centuries of stigma – and open vital doors in the search for a cure

It was with the pomp and intrigue of a Dan Brown novel that earlier this month Pope Francis made his way into the Aula Paolo VI audience hall, a room the size of an aeroplane hangar in Vatican City. Flanked by the flamboyant Swiss Guard and dark-suited men muttering into earpieces, he headed for an oversized chair on a stage in front of nearly 2,000 people. Many applauded, most gawped in disbelief.

The pope was there to do something no other world leader has done before. He was meeting people with Huntington’s disease, a rare and incurable neurological disorder that has long been shrouded in shame and discrimination. It’s a genetic disease that runs in families. It causes involuntary jerky movements and can make people depressed or aggressive, symptoms that can leave them socially isolated, thanks in part to a historic misunderstanding.

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