Category Archives: Drugs

Ocrevus, Hope and a Suicide Postponed

Several months ago, I wrote a column in Multiple Sclerosis News Today about Andrew Barclay.

Barclay died in an assisted suicide in December. He’d had multiple sclerosis for many years.

Colin Campbell is a 56-year-old MS patient who lives in Inverness, Scotland. He also wanted to die. In fact, he was scheduled to end his own life, with help, on June 15 at a suicide clinic in Switzerland. But he changed his mind.

Campbell has been writing about his MS for the Sunday Herald in Glasgow since late April. (He’s also the paper’s “Beer of the Week” writer.) He describes himself as “a man on death row,” and on May 20, his MS article began, “Well, unfortunately I am still alive.”

Campbell has mobility problems, and living in a second-floor flat has been tough for him. He says he’s had no support in getting ground-floor accommodations. He complains that he was recently discharged from a hospital without the possibility of receiving home care. He has no caregivers and exists on microwave dinners.

Campbell had hoped that a stem cell transplant would allow him to live a life that was worth living, but his neurologist told him that he thought HSCT would be too risky. So, at age 56, Campbell made plans to die.

Then came a glimmer of hope. In a column he wrote two days after he had been planning to die, Campbell explained that a former police sergeant named Rona Tynan gave him a reason to live, at least a little while longer.

“Rona, who also has multiple sclerosis, was of the opinion that I should not commit suicide until having tried every other possible avenue – including soon-to-be-available multiple sclerosis treatments for folk like me with primary progressive MS. Rona persuaded me, and I agreed,” Campbell wrote.

That treatment is the disease-modifying drug ocrelizumab, sold in the U.S. under the brand name Ocrevus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it a few months ago, and it’s the only drug approved to treat progressive MS. Some neurologists refer to it as “stem-cell lite” because of the way it attacks the rogue B-cells that are believed to cause MS. Ocrelizumab is expected to be available in Scotland later this year.

“For the first time since multiple sclerosis was identified during a post-mortem 149 years ago, there now seems to be a real hope of lasting risk-free treatment for multiple sclerosis sufferers within the next few years,” Campbell writes. “The timing could not have been more perfect — although there was a fear, of course, that the developments had just come too late for me. But I wanted to remain as optimistic as possible.”

Colin Campbell’s hope, now, is that Ocrevus will halt the progression of his MS and avoid a future that he pictures as becoming bedridden, needing help to eat and bathe, and using a catheter. He’s not sure how much hope he realistically should have, but he ends his June 17 column with: “Wish me well.”

That, we certainly do.

****

(This post first appeared as my regular column on www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

My Lemtrada Journey: 6 month report

It’s been a little over six months since I completed Round 1 of my Lemtrada infusions, so it’s time again to ask myself, “How am I doing?”

The answer: I’m not sure.

For many years, my brain MRI has remained unchanged. I can’t remember the last time I had an exacerbation (something bad enough to require steroid treatments). It was, literally, in the last century. But my walking has slowly, but steadily, declined.

So, I’m really not sure how much of an impact any of the disease-modifying drugs that I’ve been on since 1996, including Lemtrada, have had on my MS. I like to think that all of the shots, pills, and infusions that I’ve been treated with over the past two decades have, at least, slowed the progression of my disease, but it’s really hard to know for sure.

Enter Lemtrada

As you probably know, Lemtrada is designed to halt further progression of MS. In addition, some patients have had some symptoms reversed. But that benefit wasn’t expected, it just sort of appeared during the clinical trials. On the other hand, more than a few patients are reporting a variety of negative symptoms following their infusions.

My 6-month timeline

The first three months post-infusion were a real roller coaster. The lowest point on the ride was at about two months post-infusion, when I developed a fever, slight headache, and a cough. Naturally, my energy level also dropped. It was diagnosed as strep, and after downing antibiotics for about 10 days, I was much better.

Around the five-month point, my wife thought I was walking better. Today, just past six months, I think I am — sometimes, but not always. I also can flex my left foot up from the ankle just a little, and I think that’s new. Cramping in the insoles of my feet, which took place almost every night when I got into bed, has been significantly reduced. So, all positive stuff.

But, on the other side of the coin, I developed an aching pain in both hips around mid-February. At times, that pain would shoot down one or both legs when I put weight on them. It’s been worse in the mornings, particularly if I’m trying to get up from squatting down. But, is this drug-related, or is it something else? My neuro says it’s not related to the infusions. Some Lemtrada patients have suggested that it’s the feeling of my body “making new bone marrow.” I just don’t know.

This pain has slowly eased since it began four months ago. That improvement may be related to receiving physical therapy treatments in April and May and getting back into the swimming pool in June. That physical therapy and the swimming may also be responsible for the mobility improvements that I mentioned earlier. Or is it the Lemtrada? Or, maybe it’s a combination of both.

The six-month mark is the time at which, I’ve been told, the ups and downs tend to level out or to swing upward. That seems to be the case with me. So, I guess it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Lemtrada, or PT, or swimming that seems to be helping, or if it’s the drug or the natural course of my MS that’s responsible for my low points. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing and hope for the best.

(A version of this first appeared as my column on www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

 

In case you missed my live FB stream…

You can see a recording of this afternoon’s live stream on the MS News Today Facebook page here. I’m sharing my experiences with various DMDs that I’ve used over the past 20 years or so.

Getting Help Paying for Your MS Drugs

With the recent approval of the multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, I’ve again heard the plea “but how can I afford it?” Ocrevus carries a price tag of about $65,000 a year. That’s not high compared to some other MS drugs, but it can still mean a higher co-pay than some patients with insurance can afford. And it can appear to be totally unaffordable for those without coverage. Unless you know how to get help with those drug costs.

About six months ago I wrote about the programs that various drug companies and foundations have to assist MS patients in paying for their drug. With lots of folks looking for that help I thought it would be a good idea to review some of what’s out there.

Payment help from MS drug manufacturers

In the U.S., many drug companies have programs to provide their high-costing MS drugs to patients at a deep discount or, in some cases, for free. For Ocrevus, drug manufacturer Genentech has a number of options. For other MS drugs, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has an excellent, drug by drug, list of these programs on its website. I recommend checking it as a first stop in your search for help.

But there are rules regulating this practice in the U.S. and they don’t make a lot of sense from a patient’s viewpoint. Here’s how they work. If you have prescription drug insurance, either through your employer or as an individual, a drug company is allowed to reduce the amount of your co-pay for their drug.  When I was still working full-time, I was prescribed the drug Ampyra. At that time the average wholesale price for a 90-day supply of Ampyra was about $1,000 a month.  My insurance covered about 50% of that, so I was left with an unaffordable co-pay of about $500 a month for a drug that was really helping me walk. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of Acorda’s patient assistance program to limit my co-pay to no more than $40 a month, and I was able to continue on that drug.

Then I retired and moved from my employer’s drug insurance plan to Medicare Part D (the section of Medicare that pays for prescription drugs).  But, under the Medicare rules, drug companies aren’t allowed to pay-down the co-pay, as they do with private insurance. They must either provide the drug totally free of charge to a patient or they can’t provide any assistance at all.  And, to receive that no-cost benefit the patient’s income must be under a certain limit. My retirement income was too high to get the drug for free, but I still couldn’t afford the big jump from a $40 co-pay to $500 a month, so I had to go off the drug.

But, there’s another way …

Help from foundations

A foundation is the good place to turn when you have private insurance or Medicare, you’re still stuck with a high co-pay and the drug company is unable to help. It takes patience and good timing to obtain help from these non-profits, but it can be worth the effort. If you qualify for the help (there’s still an income ceiling but it’s usually fairly high), a foundation will approve a monetary grant for you. The grant will cover your co-pays and be paid directly to the pharmacy that’s providing your drugs for a specific amount of time, usually a year.

At one time I was receiving a grant of $6,000 a year from a foundation which covered all of my co-pays for Aubagio for that year…a significant out-of-pocket savings. Some of these foundations limit their grants to people on Medicare, while others also include patients with private insurance. A list of some foundations that will pay for MS drugs can be found at the bottom of the National MS Society webpage that I mentioned earlier.

You’ll need patience and good timing to travel this route. The foundations help patients with many different diseases and they can quickly run out of money for a specific disease until new donations are received. The problem is, the foundations don’t announce when their coffers are replenished. So, you need to check their websites, or call them, as frequently as possible to see if they have new money, and then apply quickly when they do.

 

Pills, shots or infusions for your MS?

[This first appeared as my column on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com]

Oral multiple sclerosis meds appear, more and more, to be the first choice of patients who are just beginning to receive an MS treatment. A recent report by the independent marketing research firm Spherix Global Insights shows that oral disease-modifying therapies captured a significantly higher share of the market at the end of 2016 compared to 2015.  Tecfidera was at the top of the pills list with Aubagio gaining ground. But, final FDA approval of the infusion drug Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) could be a game-changer in the pill-shot-infusion decision.

Ocrevus

Neurologists and many MS patients are very familiar with Ocrevus. There’s a lot of chatter about it in online MS gathering spots, and many doctors report they intend to use it as soon as it is approved. And, even though most of the “buzz” is about prescribing Ocrevus for PPMS patients, it’s expected that a lot of doctors also are looking at it for those with RRMS. It could push ahead of other infusions, such as Tysabri and Lemtrada. as well as oral meds such as Tecfidera and Aubagio. Spherix reports more than one third of the neurologists it surveyed said they would have been likely to have started patients on Ocrevus, rather than on Tysabri, had it been available.

Weighing the treatment options

What drives these drug decisions? According to a Spherix report RealWorld Dynamix™: DMT New Starts in Multiple Sclerosis, the drivers include clinical considerations such as safety and efficacy, as well as non-clinical concerns including patient requests and the policies of the insurance coverage of those patients. Interestingly, it appears that neurologists are becoming more comfortable using high-efficacy DMTs right away for patients with aggressive MS, rather than working up to them from drugs with lower efficacy, but lower risk or cost.

Be involved in the decision

As the patient you should take an active role in your drug selection. A Spherix report released last fall showed that newly diagnosed MS patients are doing their research about DMTs. One in five of them are asking their neurologists about specific MS drugs. Those doctors say that 27% of their patients have a high degree of involvement in choosing the DMT they will use, 43% have moderate involvement, and 30% only low involvement. Unfortunately, more than 50% of the neurologists surveyed say that they, alone, choose the DMT the patient will use. About a third say they present a few choices, and then let the patient decide.  Only 10% of the docs say they present all of the options and then let the patient decide.

How did you decide which DMT to use? Are you thinking about changing?

Starting Down the Lemtrada Road

[This is an updated version of my column that first appeared on http://www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com]

The final drip of my first week of Lemtrada infusions will drop in about 30 minutes.  The headline is: It was a good week with no significant problems or discomfort.  I’ll be writing about this experience, in detail, in my next column.  But first, for those who aren’t yet up to speed on my journey, some background.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Lemtrada has been successful in stopping disease progression in folks with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and is also being used by some people who have the progressive forms.  There have also been many reports of some people who have had some symptoms improved.  But, I was writing about those reports.  Now, it’s personal.

Treatment Starts Before the IVs

Two days before my first infusion I began to pre-medicate to reduce the chance of some side-effects. I’m taking Acyclovir to reduce the chance of contracting the herpes virus. Doctors say that Lemtrada treatments raise the chance of getting this virus for some people. The allergy drugs Zantac and Zyrtec are being taken to limit hives and rashes.  I also have on hand ibuprofen, Benadryl and hydrocortisone creme to use, if necessary, to treat any pain, rash, hives or any increased temperature.

The Infusions

The five days of infusions involve three drugs.  First comes Solumedrol.  My neurologist tells that it serves two purposes.  As a steroid it calms the body’s immune system. But it’s also a histamine blocker, serving as another guard against hives, rashes and the like.  I’m to receive 1,000 mg on the first three days, 500 mg on the second fourth and 250 mg on the final day.

Next comes 25-50 mg of Benadryl by IV.  Finally, the star of the show…the Lemtrada – 12 mg over four hours.  Oops, not done yet.  After all the drugs there’s a two hour “watch” period, during which IV fluids continue.  In all, 7-8 hours each day.  Whew!

Drink Up

For the next several months I’ll be drinking lots of water. (That’s going to be tough for this MSer who has spent the past 35 years trying to avoid water). My neuro, and most “Lemmies” who’ve had these infusions, say it’s the best thing to do to limit uncomfortable side effects.  Flushing the toxins and dying cells out of my system, they say, is the best approach to feeling as good as I can.

Watch What You Eat

There are also foods that I’ve been told to avoid for the first month after my infusions.  This is to reduce the risk of listeria.  They include:

  • Hot dogs and deli meats (This will be a hardship).
  • Refrigerated pates and meat spreads.
  • Unpasteurized milk and dairy products.
  • Soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, e.g. Feta, Brie, Queso Fresco and Camembert
  • Raw sprouts
  • Smoked seafood
  • Raw fish, e.g. sushi (I wouldn’t, anyway).
  • Raw eggs or meat
  • Prepared salads, e.g. chicken salad, ham salad and egg salad.
  • Wash all vegetables and fruits thoroughly

And After the Infusions

For a time I’ll be continuing the meds that I began before treatment started and I’ll be taking Prednisone to taper off the IV steroids.

I’ve been told to expect a roller coaster ride of good and bad days for a week or two – headache, body aches and fever – some days feeling like I’ve crashed and burned and others where I’m feeling well. After a month I’ll be scheduling physical therapy. After four or five months I’ve been told that I should see an improvement in my overall endurance.

That’s quite a ride for a 68 year old guy to anticipate but, as I’ve said several times in writing about Lemtrada, the potential benefit makes the risk and discomfort worthwhile.

So, my fingers are crossed.  Unless I’m really dragging, and at the bottom of the roller coaster loop, I’ll be reporting on my ride in about another week.

 

 

 

A Letter to a Scared Young Woman

(This first appeared as my column on www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com)

Dear Lauren Parrott,

I know you’re scared.  The fears that you shared in your video blog ring true to any of us who have faced the unknowns of a new MS medicine.

I’ve been there.

I’ve gone through three major multiple sclerosis drugs over the 35+ years that I’ve been fighting MS.  I was a subject in the clinical trial of Avonex; in other words, a guinea pig for a brand new drug.   Was I nervous?  You bet! But my neurologist, who sounds like your Dr. Rossman, was someone who I trusted. So, I went onto that drug for several years and it helped.  My reward was worth my risk.

Then I moved to Tysabri and finally to Aubagio.  As you know, Tysabri is a drug with the a very serious potential side effect; the sometimes fatal brain disease Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy, or PML.  But both it and Aubagio have helped slow the progression of my MS.  Again, the reward was worth the risk.

In December I’m going to switch drugs again.  I’ll be starting Lemtrada. I don’t think that I’ve ever been “scared” about any of my drug therapies but, for some reason, I am a little nervous about this one. Maybe that’s because some of the people using Lemtrada have reported some very uncomfortable side effects, and I’m a wimp when I don’t feel well.  But, I’m determined not to allow my nerves to prevent me from taking advantage this drug.  The potential reward, that some of my MS symptoms might be reversed, seems far greater than the risk that’s involved.

My neurologist has told me “the buzz is good” about your new drug, ocrelizumab.  The investing web site Motley Fool calls it “the revolutionary Multiple Sclerosis drug you’ve never heard of.”  Ocrelizumab, which Genentech hopes to market under the name Ocrevus, is special because it’s designed to treat primary-progressive, as well as relapsing-remitting, MS.

I’m sure that Dr. Rossman wouldn’t have recommended ocrelizumab if he didn’t think that the drug was right for you. Even though he’s no longer able to be at your side through this trip you can count on other MS patients, like me, to walk down that road with you.  We’ll try our best to help you through the risks that scare you so that you have a chance to reap the rewards.chronic_illness_bloggers_logo_300x250

 

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