Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Interview With A Kamikaze

I was recently contacted and asked for an interview by fellow MSer Meagan Freeman, who writes the excellent blog “Multiple Sclerosis, Motherhood, and Other Traumatic Experiences: The Life of a Nurse Practitioner With MS”. After checking out Meagan’s blog and making sure she wasn’t part of the vast government conspiracy intent on siphoning off my Cosmic MS Mojo for use in covert attempts to transform reptilian aliens into characters on the “Real Housewives” reality TV shows (you didn’t think those people were actual human beings, did you), I readily agreed.

Meagan asked me a series of eight questions, on topics ranging from what I may have learned from dealing with my disease (that La Paz is Bolivia’s third most populous city – oh, wait, on second thought I think I learned that from the CNN show “Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown”) to my opinion of stem cells (I think they're kind of cute, especially the ones with long whiskers).

I’ve taken the liberty of posting three of Meagan’s questions and my corresponding answers below. To read the full interview, you’ll have to hoof it on over to Meagan’s blog, by (clicking here). While you’re there, be sure to check out some of Meagan’s other essays. She’s a passionate, insightful writer who shares her, thoughts, feelings, and experiences dealing with the beast quite eloquently.

Thanks for your indulgence…

What motivates you on your “bad days,” and gives you the strength to carry on?

Sometimes nothing motivates me on bad days, and I accept that it's okay to listen to my body and do as close to nothing as possible if that's the way I'm feeling. I think it's very important for MS patients to realize this; discretion is the better part of valor, and some days it's okay to just allow yourself to be a person with a horrible disease who just flat-out doesn't feel good. Even on those days, though, it's important to do nothing to the best of your ability, if that makes any sense. If you're going to stay in bed and watch SpongeBob SquarePants all day, that's fine, but try to enjoy the heck out of watching SpongeBob SquarePants all day while you do it, rather than just succumbing to the fear and misery that can become part of life with multiple sclerosis, using SpongeBob as a backdrop while you wallow in the muck. It's okay to wallow every now and then, also, but don't get stuck in the muck, whatever you do.

On most days, though, what motivates me is the knowledge that this day is the only "this day" that I'm ever going to have, this minute is the only "this minute" that I'm ever going to have, and this second is the only "this second" that I'm ever going to experience. Time is everybody's most precious possession, and it gets more precious with each passing moment. Unfortunately, you don't get any rebates or refunds for time you spend miserable; there's no cosmic scorekeeper keeping track of the brownie points you might think you're earning while wrapped in self-righteous unhappiness. I think back on all the time I wasted when I was healthy, tied up in knots about things that ultimately turned out to be completely insignificant– and, boy, I went out of my way to find things to be miserable about – and realize just what a fool I was.

Not saying that you can somehow just sit around grinning like a blithering idiot and smile away your problems, but we do shape our own realities through the filter of our minds, and we can control our emotions, not the other way around. Pop culture often leads us to believe that it's our emotions that rule the day. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, as your emotions are born of you, not you of them…

How has writing and blogging changed your daily life? Do you find writing therapeutic?

Writing the blog is definitely therapeutic, much more so than any of the MS therapies I've tried. I honestly never thought that more than a few dozen people, mostly friends and family, would ever read Wheelchair Kamikaze, and its success continues to astound me. Going back to one of your previous questions, researching items for the blog and answering email from readers is one of those things that motivates me on bad days. So, yeah, the blog has definitely impacted my daily life, in so many positive ways.

When I left work to go on disability, I wondered how I would fill my days. In all honesty, occupying my time turned out to not be that much of a problem; despite being relatively successful I never really liked working, and the freedom of no longer having to work was kind of exhilarating. I know this isn't the case for many people, but who I was and what I did for a living very rarely meshed as I built my career. The success of Wheelchair Kamikaze really makes me wish I had devoted more time to writing when I was younger, which may have led me to a more fulfilling career. Better late than never, though, as they say. I just wish that I had something a lot more pleasant to blog about, and that there weren't so many people who can identify with my subject matter.

Any advice you would have for those who are transitioning to using a wheelchair?

My best advice would be to just go for it. It took me way, way too long to finally get over myself and admit that I needed a wheelchair. By the time I did so, I was practically housebound, and the disease had definitely gotten the upper hand as far as my having any kind of independent social life was concerned. Believe me, there's a big difference between Armchair Kamikaze and Wheelchair Kamikaze. In the months immediately preceding my getting the mechanical monster, my ability to leave the apartment on my own had dwindled to almost nil. The day I got my wheelchair the world was once again open for business, so to speak, and suddenly I was able to fill my days with adventurous urban excursions around New York City.

I vividly remember the day my chair was delivered. After the wheelchair tech left, I sat across from the chair giving it the stink eye, having a hard time accepting the fact that this thing was now basically a part of my broken body. Then the 12-year-old boy that lies just below the surface took note of the fact that the thing has wheels, motors, and the joystick. I dragged myself over to the chair and sat down, and was soon whizzing around my living room, recklessly smashing into and upending coffee tables, sofas, and chairs.

That evening when my wife came home she insisted we go out for a "walk", a notion that had me horrified. Me, in public, in a wheelchair?!? Good heavens, no! With a bit of cajoling, my wife soon won out, and we were out on the streets of Manhattan, me with my backside firmly planted in a rolling electrical beast. I was certain that the attention of every pedestrian in the city would be riveted upon me, but instead nobody seemed to notice. Truth of the matter is, most people are so self-absorbed that they barely give any attention to anything outside of their own heads, and they could care less that some guy in a wheelchair is sharing the sidewalk. Gotta say, the moment I realized this was one of the few times I've ever been grateful that narcissism plays such a large role in human psychology.

To read the rest of the interview, please (click here) to go to Meagan’s blog. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

National MS Society FAIL: UPDATE – The NMSS Responds

First, I’d like to thank all who helped contribute to the online dialogue (some might even call it a brouhaha) spurred by my last post on this blog (click here), which detailed the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s repeated refusals to fund the only current ongoing FDA approved stem cell trial being done on MS patients in the nation, at The Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center of New York. Your response has been a personal inspiration to me, and your comments and sharing of the article on social media have definitely been noticed by the powers that be.

Several readers have forwarded me statements they received from the NMSS in regards to phone calls or emails they sent to the Society in response to that Wheelchair Kamikaze post. The body of each example of the Society’s feedback includes identical text, apparently written by the Society’s communications department. Nothing wrong with that, per se, as any large organization needs to fashion a coordinated response to any issue of concern, but I do feel it necessary to make some points about the reply sent out by the NMSS. Here’s the heart of the text sent by the Society to those who inquired about the organization’s repeated lack of funding for the Tisch Center’s ongoing stem cell research efforts:

“Regarding stem cell research, the Society is currently funding 15 research projects exploring various types of stem cells, including cells derived from bone marrow, fat and skin.  We have supported 70 stem cell studies over the past 10 years.  We have also convened international meetings on the potential of stem cells to drive new, effective MS treatments.

The Society’s research funding decisions are determined with advice from internationally renowned scientific experts who review the more than 500 research proposals received each year.  These volunteers bring a broad range of knowledge in different MS specialties, including stem cell research and clinical trials expertise. They help us determine each proposal’s scientific merit and relevance to MS, assess the originality of the proposed project, and evaluate the experience and scientific track record of the applicants. 

The decision to not fund the Tisch MS Center stem cell clinical trial was based on the advice of a review committee comprised of experts with experience in stem cell research and clinical trials as well as perspective from individuals living with MS.  The lead investigator, Dr. Saud Sadiq, received written feedback regarding the scientific evaluation of his proposal and was invited to reapply for funding to address the specific concerns. We are pleased to receive proposals from Dr. Sadiq and to work with him. In fact, the Society has collaborated with his research team on an innovative pilot project to understand one of the biological pathways in MS. 

There is exciting progress being made through innovative research related to the potential of many types of stem cells for both slowing MS disease activity and for repairing damage to the nervous system. With the urgent need for more effective treatment for MS, especially progressive forms of the disease, we believe that the potential of all types of cell therapies must be explored.  

Additional information about Society funded stem cell studies and stem cells research underway internationally can be found on our website http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Research/Research-We-Fund/Restoring-What-s-Been-Lost/Repairing-Damaged-Tissues/Stem-Cells-in-MS

Although my own professional expertise on any of the matters outlined above is infinitesimally small compared to that of the internationally renowned scientific experts who decide which research efforts the NMSS will fund, I’ll take the liberty of commenting from my position of expertise as a patient being forced to slowly watch himself disappear courtesy a horrendous brain and body eating disease. I've also been a patient at the MS clinic that works hand-in-hand with the Tisch Center since 2004, and being the pain in the ass that I am I’ve become quite familiar to and with many of the doctors and researchers involved.

I’ll start my comments on the statement put out by the NMSS with a short, general critique of the Society : Too Much Pharma!

Now, I know that this criticism may sound simplistic, hyperbolic, and even a bit trite at this point, but the influence of Big Pharma on all aspects of medical research has been terribly corrosive, and not because the pharmaceutical companies are staffed by evil ogres intent on hiding cures from a nettlesome population of sick people. No, I honestly believe that the vast majority of pharmaceutical company employees are good people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, and therein lies the crux of the problem.

The job of pharmaceutical company executives, who helm what are almost all publicly traded enterprises, is to make as much money as possible to keep their companies’ stock prices on an ever increasing upward trajectory. This creates a confounding conflict of interest; treating chronic diseases in perpetuity with hyper expensive drugs has become a very successful business model; curing them, on the other hand, kills that business model. Combine this dynamic with the fact that we’ve handed almost all of our mid and late stage medical research over to the pharmaceutical companies, and you have a research model that is dysfunctional to its core, and one which leads many to suspect that the pharmaceutical companies would use a variety of tactics to delay or suppress any potential treatments – like, say, stem cells – that might damage their core business model.

The NMSS has consistently stated that less than 5% of their donations come from Pharma. I’m not sure if this figure includes all of the advertising dollars the pharmaceutical companies spend on NMSS publications and events, but even if it does, it’s too much. I am always astounded by the massive amount of advertising contained in the NMSS’s primary publication, the slick quarterly magazine Momentum, which serves as the face of the organization that serves as the face of multiple sclerosis for most of the general population of America. It’s hardly a stretch to say that every other page contains a Madison Avenue type advertisement for one MS drug or another, the total effect of which makes it easy to perceive the NMSS as a mere extension of the pharmaceutical companies.

If indeed Pharma monies make up less than 5% of the Society’s yearly take, my best advice to them would be to divest themselves completely of these monies. The shortfall would in large part, I’m sure, be quickly made up by donations from people who have long held back from giving because of their perception of the NMSS being locked in Big Pharma’s embrace. The Society could continue educating patients about MS disease modifying drugs, and do so without even the slightest hint of being under the sway of the companies who manufacture them.

In contrast, the International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice (IMSMP), the MS clinic associated with The Tisch Center, doesn’t even allow pharmaceutical company representatives through the front door. The doctors who work there are not allowed to take any pharmaceutical company largess, and the clinic is one of the few medical facilities I’ve ever visited that doesn’t have the name of one pharmaceutical product or another emblazoned on every pen, sticky note, and wall decoration in the place. You’ll find none of these things at the IMSMP, precisely because the physician who runs the facility, Dr. Saud Sadiq, is fiercely independent and refuses to let the influence of Big Pharma, no matter how subtle, cloud the judgments of the staff who works there.

It is true, as the statement put out by the NMSS asserts, that the society has funded research into stem cell therapy in the past, and is currently funding 15 stem cell trials in the US. The problem is, as best I can tell, all of those studies are early-stage studies being conducted in test tubes or on animals, and even if successful the benefits of these trials will not reach MS patients for at least a decade or more.

The study being conducted by the Tisch Center is a human trial, using living, breathing MS patients to test a technologically advanced stem cell therapy which, if successful, could revolutionize the treatment of multiple sclerosis in a relatively few number of years, not decades. The Tisch Center spent over 10 years doing test tube and animal research before getting their FDA approval, so that work has already been successfully completed. Again, this trial is the only FDA approved stem cell study currently being conducted on MS patients. The only other such trial that I know of was completed by the Cleveland Clinic last year.

The NMSS writes that their decision whether to fund a project depends on “each proposal’s scientific merit and relevance to MS”, assessment “of the originality of the proposed project”, and evaluation “of the experience and scientific track record of the applicants”. I spoke to one of my friends who works at the NMSS's headquarters in Denver, but due to confidentiality agreements between the Society and grant applicants they could not divulge whatever issues the NMSS may have had with the research being done by the Tisch Center. I can say that the research proved safe enough and showed enough potential coming out of the laboratory to be only the second MS stem cell trial to win FDA approval, and the Tisch center applied for NMSS grants on three separate occasions, each application addressing the issues the Society had with the last. I'm not sure what "individuals living with MS" the NMSS consulted with, but from where I sit (since I can barely stand) the research is most certainly relevant to MS.

Furthermore, the Tisch trial is using proprietary methods to transform raw stem cells into a type of stem cell specific to the central nervous system, a technique far more sophisticated than any previously used in human stem cell trials, and far more refined than the stem cell treatments being offered, at substantial cost, to patients by most offshore clinics. I’d say that accomplishment should tick the “originality” box on the list of NMSS requirements.

As for the “experience and scientific track record of the applicants”, if I were to list the research published by scientists at The Tisch Center in only the last five years, this post might just break the Internet. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you can check out just some of the research being done by the Center on their website (click here).

The Society’s response to inquiries about their repeated rejections of the Tisch Center’s research proposals further states that “The lead investigator, Dr. Saud Sadiq, received written feedback regarding the scientific evaluation of his proposal and was invited to reapply for funding to address the specific concerns.” This is quite true. What is also quite true is that Dr. Sadiq submitted not one, not two, but three proposals to the NMSS, attempting each time to address their concerns, to no avail.

The first proposal was submitted before the trial received FDA approval, and one of the primary stated reasons for the NMSS’s rejection of that proposal was the fact that the trial wasn’t FDA approved. After the trial received FDA approval, another proposal was made, which was again rejected. Undaunted, and in need of funding to continue this vital research, the Tisch Center submitted a third proposal, which the researchers involved believed addressed the concerns expressed by the Society's most recent rejection. The third proposal was again rejected.

I’m not privy to the precise concerns expressed by the Society that were used to back up their rejection of the third and final grant proposal submitted by the Tisch Center. However, I do know that the trial did win an extremely rare FDA approval, is using state-of-the-art technology and techniques, is testing methodology that if successful will expand the boundaries of the science, and is being conducted by world-class researchers at a world-class facility in the heart of the biggest city in the nation.

Any safety concerns that the NMSS's experts may have had should have been alleviated by the FDA approval, and unless those experts included soothsayers and seers I'm not entirely sure how they could determine the odds of success for a trial the likes of which has never before been attempted. I may be admittedly biased, but I find it hard to imagine that the Society’s concerns were so dire that three rounds of proposals couldn’t result in a solution. Especially since, even as you read this, hundreds if not thousands of MS patients are flocking to medical tourism sites offering unproven stem cell treatments at facilities of widely varying quality at a cost of many tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.

The NMSS further states that it is funding one pilot project currently underway at the Tisch Center, and this is true. The trial in question was funded back in 2011 to the tune of $44,000, which may seem like a substantial amount of money to the average Joe, but in the world of medical research is fairly negligible (keep in mind that the NMSS receives approximately $100 million worth of donations every year). I spoke with the head of fundraising at the Tisch Center, who told me that the NMSS may have funded another Tisch Center study back in 2005, but she’d have to dig through her files to confirm that. I told her not to bother.

So, there you have it, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s response to inquiries as to why they refused to fund a trial that, in my humble opinion, has at least as much potential to change the lives of MS patients as any currently ongoing study, and my reaction to that response. Perhaps I’m partial since I am a patient of Dr. Sadiq’s, but my passion on the subject comes more from the desperation I feel as a human being whose body is being consumed by a relentlessly vicious disease, and not from my allegiance to any medical professional or facility. I promise.

I would urge those who feel similar passion to have their voices heard. The contact number for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is 800-344-4867. A list of the NMSS senior leadership team, including email links, can be found by (clicking here).

I would also ask that all opinions expressed or inquiries made be done so in as civil a manner as possible, as to a person the NMSS staffers I know personally are truly good people who are fully dedicated to the cause. It’s just the institution they work for that may be misguided…

Friday, February 6, 2015

National MS Society FAIL! Repeatedly Refuses to Fund Only Ongoing FDA Approved MS Stem Cell Trial…

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), by far the largest MS nonprofit organization in the US, has three times rejected grant applications from the Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center of New York, which were submitted in an effort to procure funding for what is now the only FDA approved regenerative stem cell trial being conducted on MS patients in the nation. The trial in question uses a very sophisticated approach to this experimental therapy, arrived at after over a decade of development in the laboratory, in an attempt to repair nervous system tissues damaged by multiple sclerosis (click here). The failure of the NMSS to help fund this trial is, at the very least, extremely disappointing, and should be of great concern to all those who support the organization.

The goal of nervous system repair and regeneration has long been a Holy Grail of MS research, and investigations into using stem cells to achieve this end hold terrific potential. MS patients around the world are eager to see stem cell research accelerated, as dissatisfaction with current treatment paradigms runs rampant in many segments of the MS population. Patients with the progressive subtypes of the disease are especially desperate for innovative new treatment approaches, as no existing therapy has been shown to put a dent in these especially insidious forms of multiple sclerosis.

The level of desperation felt by many members of the MS community has fueled a rapidly growing medical tourism industry largely comprised of unregulated offshore clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies at prices that can easily amount to many tens of thousands of dollars. The lure of copious bundles of cash to be made by offering such therapies has attracted at least one despicable con artist into the fray, as I wrote about in my last Wheelchair Kamikaze entry (click here). I fear there may be many more lurking in the weeds.

Given the current "Wild West" atmosphere surrounding the commercial MS stem cell industry, it is vitally important that precious research dollars be expeditiously directed to legitimate, scientifically valid stem cell studies being conducted by the best of the best, scientists with proven track records of academic and scientific achievement in the fields of MS and neurodegenerative diseases. Just last week, the Canadian MS society announced that it was providing $4.2 million in funding for a 40 patient trial to be conducted by some of Canada’s most respected MS neurologists (click here). While the American NMSS provides funds for preliminary research inquiries into the use of stem cells to treat MS, most of them using animal or test tube models of the disease, the organization has inexplicably chosen to reject grant proposals submitted by the Tisch Center, despite the fact that the Center’s trial received a hard won FDA approval – the lack of which was cited by the NMSS as reason to reject the first grant proposal submitted by the Tisch Center – and is using a more sophisticated approach than any other regenerative MS stem cell trial to date.

Most previous attempts at using stem cells to repair MS damage have involved intravenously infusing a basic type of stem cell (called mesenchymal stem cells) back into the patient from which they were taken. The Tisch Center is taking this approach several steps further, using proprietary methods to transform raw mesenchymal stem cells into a type of stem cell known as neural progenitors, which are specific to the central nervous system. The cells are then injected directly into the spinal fluid of trial subjects, where, in theory, they should be more effective at effecting repairs and combating the disease. The first phase of this trial is now underway, and many of the trial's human subjects (including Richard Cohen, noted journalist and author – click here) have started receiving their stem cell injections.

I am a patient at the International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice (click here), which is the clinic closely associated with the Tisch Research Center. I am therefore very well acquainted with the principal investigators running in this trial. I’ve been aware of their arduous efforts in the area of stem cell research almost since the day I became a patient at the clinic, in the summer of 2004, under the care of Dr. Saud Sadiq. The Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center (click here) – which is funded entirely by a private, nonprofit foundation that is unaffiliated with any hospital, academic institution, or government agency – worked extremely hard at getting the FDA approval before embarking on their trial, submitting applications to the regulatory agency several times before finally getting the coveted approval in August 2013.

Unfortunately, receiving FDA approval and procuring the funding needed to proceed with the trial were two separate battles. In today’s tough economic environment research monies are difficult to come by. After receiving their FDA approval, the Tisch Center submitted two subsequent grant proposals for vitally needed research funds to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, both of which were rejected without any viable explanation. Subsequently, the Tisch Center mounted extraordinary efforts to raise the necessary capital, culminating in a crowd funding effort through the Internet site Indiegogo (click here). The final $300,000 needed to start the trial was raised through this online effort, in large part from donations by patients themselves and those who love them.

With the first phase of the trial now underway, the researchers and administrators at the Tisch Center have their hopeful eyes fixed on phase 2, which is expected to expand the treatment to a greater number of trial subjects using lessons learned during the first phase of the study. This projected expansion will naturally require additional state-of-the-art equipment to be purchased and world-class researchers to be hired, and private fundraising efforts are already underway to procure the financial resources needed to facilitate these necessities, which are expected to require more than $1 million of investment.

I’m fully aware that the NMSS does some extraodinarily good work on behalf of the MS community. The organization not only funds research but also provides education and support to tens of thousands of MS patients in the United States, and has innovated many programs designed to help the MS community in a wide variety of ways. I consider several employees of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society friends, and the NMSS workers with whom I am acquainted are wonderful, bighearted, talented people fully dedicated to the cause.

I also know, though, that the NMSS – which has become THE face of multiple sclerosis to the American general public – has grown into a multi million dollar a year many tentacled behemoth, too entwined with and reliant on mainstream medical dogma, the pharmaceutical companies, and, perhaps on institutionally subconscious level, an increasingly unacceptable MS status quo; and that it can play unnecessarily rough when working with other, smaller MS nonprofits, which are often left to scramble for the fundraising scraps the NMSS leaves behind. That said, it is the knowledge of the power and potential for good represented by the NMSS that makes its repeated rejections of the Tisch Center’s vital research so discouraging and disheartening. One can only question the decision-making processes involved within the Society that would lead to the withholding of much needed funds from the Tisch Center, a transparent, fully certified nonprofit organization staffed by world-class researchers and some of the most caring physicians I’ve come to know, who are conducting cutting-edge stem cell research that has the potential to completely transform the MS treatment landscape.

As a patient with progressive MS who is watching himself slowly circle the drain, I’m outraged at the NMSS’s actions (or lack thereof) in regards to the Tisch Center’s ongoing stem cell trial, and as a human being who knows firsthand the dedication of some of the national organization’s staff I find myself confused and deeply saddened by the Society’s behavior in this regard. If there are politics at work, well, get over it, and if there are some other tangible objections the NMSS has to the Tisch Center’s research, by all means, state them loud and clear so they can be properly addressed. Time, and brain, is wasting…

For more info on the Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center of New York (click here).

The contact number for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is 800-344-4867. A list of the NMSS senior leadership team, including email links, can be found by (clicking here).

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Stem Cell Scam Unravels…

As many MS patients are aware, stem cells represent one of the great hopes for vanquishing multiple sclerosis by way of their tantalizing potential for repairing damaged brain and spinal cord tissues, regulating aberrant immune responses, and ultimately restoring patients to good health. Research into the use of stem cells to treat a wide variety of diseases is increasing seemingly by the day, and scientists are beginning to unlock the tremendous promise of these emerging therapies. The therapeutic use of stem cells may dramatically transform the medical landscape in the coming years, and this prospect provides much-needed hope to patients desperately searching for answers.

Sadly, where there are significant populations of desperate people, there are almost always human sharks ready, willing, and able to take advantage of them. Thus, it seems, we have the story of Regenetek, a Canadian company that arranged for patients to travel to India for an experimental stem cell treatment under the guise of a certified medical clinical trial. Over the last several weeks, the Canadian press has revealed that the man behind Regenetek, Mr. Doug Broeska, allegedly misrepresented his credentials, the qualifications and abilities of his company to conduct a valid medical clinical study, and cajoled, bullied, and berated patients who dared question his authority or the veracity of his claims (click here). It must be said that while some of the patients who underwent the Regenetek’s stem cell therapy in India received no benefit, others have reported good results, and that’s where this story gets tricky. Though Regenetek and Doug Broeska may turn out to be complete shams, the stem cell therapy the company was hawking may have value, at least according to patients who claim to have seen benefit from it (click here).

I first became aware of Regenetek when Mr. Broeska invited me via email to join Regenetek’s private Facebook group, where patients discussed various aspects of the company’s stem cell treatment and their experiences with it. At that time, Broeska was known as Dr. Doug Broeska, or “Dr. Doug”, claiming that he was a “PhD medical researcher”. That rather generic designation set off a few red flags in my mind, especially after a quick Google search revealed little other than the fact that Mr. Broeska had been involved in some sort of electronic medical records company before taking an apparently rather sudden interest in stem cells.

Further red flags sprung up when, after spending a little time on his Facebook page, I saw that Broeska was posting articles he had written on various stem cell related subjects that contained errors and misinformation. These articles were also posted on Regenetek’s website and blog. One article in particular raised my cackles, a piece about HSCT – a type of stem cell therapy in which a patient’s immune system is ablated using chemotherapy drugs and then rebooted through the use of bone marrow derived stem cells, which clinical trials are proving to be quite effective in properly selected patients – that was so ill-conceived that I felt compelled to call out the myriad inaccuracies in the piece. After a bit of back-and-forth, Broeska removed the article, but his seeming intentional misrepresentations of fact set off alarm bells of doubt in me about his credibility.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook, and after the above incident I didn’t spend much time visiting the Regenetek page. I was left with questions about the clinical trial the company was supposedly conducting, since it seemed that the only follow-up being done after patients returned from India were e-mailed anecdotal patient self-reports of how they were doing post treatment (no MRIs, neurologic testing, or other objective measures required), as well as doubts about many of the statements and claims made by “Dr. Doug”, but I’d seen how anybody raising such concerns on the site were met with hostility and frankly wanted no part of it. I remained in email contact with one of the members of the group, who occasionally asked for my opinion on stem cell related topics and told me about several disgruntled patients, but other than that I didn’t give Regenetek or Mr. Broeska much thought at all.

A few weeks ago I was alerted to the fact that the Regenetek Facebook site and related webpages had been taken down, along with Doug Broeska’s business profiles on the LinkedIn website. Soon after, an article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press detailing Mr. Broeska’s alleged web of deceit (click here). Among the article’s findings were that “Dr. Doug’s” claims of earning a PhD at the University of Manitoba could not be confirmed (the University had no record of his graduating), and that another of his claimed degrees came from an institution called Brightland University, which apparently doesn’t actually exist, and is only part of the University Degree Program, an online degree mill that operates dozens of sham institutions. Furthermore, Broeska had claimed that he was a member of the International Cellular Medicine Society (click here), an international stem cell research oversight organization, but the executive director of the ICMS could find no evidence of Broeska’s membership. It had also been claimed that Regenetek’s clinical trial was being run under the direction of several Institutional Review Boards (IRB’s), which are governing bodies that ensure the validity of medical research efforts. No record of any legitimate IRB approvals could be found, and one of the organizations cited by Broeska as overseeing the Regenetek clinical trial was found to be headed up by one of his business partners.

Additionally, Broeska often boasted that Regenetek was a not-for-profit corporation, and that the company actually helped subsidize the cost of patients' treatments, for which the patients themselves paid up to $45,000 US. While Regenetek is indeed registered with Canada as a not-for-profit entity, most of the patients sent for stem cell treatment in India paid their fees to another Broeska owned company, CliniCard, which is a for-profit corporation (click here). Allegations have also been made that Regenetek paid patients that had gone through their stem cell protocol to recruit other patients, and to post testimonials and videos on Facebook and YouTube.

Perhaps worse than all of Broeska’s alleged falsehoods and financial sleight-of-hand were his practices involving many of the patients with whom he dealt (click here and here). According to reports, patients were threatened with being kicked out of the Regenetek clinical trial if they questioned any of the claims or methodologies used by Broeska after they returned from India. Broeska repeatedly stated that virtually all patients undergoing the treatment protocol in India saw “curative effects”, and that many had “returned to complete health without symptoms” (click here). Patients who reported little or no benefit from the treatment were accused of working for competitors, or otherwise having ulterior motives, and were booted out of the Regenetek study. Upon returning home, most patients received little if any follow-up, despite their supposedly enrollment in an ongoing clinical trial. Broeska was known to spend hours emailing and even Skypeing with prospective clients, befriending them in an effort to convince them of the validity of his claims and of his expertise in stem cell research, and ultimately to sign them up for treatment in India, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Regenetek partnered with an Indian firm called Genesis, whose Chief Operating Officer is an IT professional named Surjo Banerjee, that oversaw the medical procedures performed at a hospital in Pune, India. As previously stated, patients were charged up to $45,000 US for treatment (not including travel expenses), which consisted of CCSVI angioplasty combined with an infusion of stem cells derived from the patient’s bone marrow, in addition to intravenous and intrathecal (spinal) infusions of these same autologous mesenchymal stem cells. While in India, patients also underwent roughly 2 hours of physical therapy each day, purportedly to help the stem cells circulate to where they were needed. Perhaps not coincidentally, studies have shown that periods of intense physical therapy alone can markedly improved the functionality of many MS patienes, although the benefits fade after physical therapy is stopped (click here). Many of the claims and methodology used in what Regenetek dubbed the CTP (Combination Treatment Protocol) have been challenged by doctors familiar with stem cell technology (click here).

Due to the fact that so little actual follow-up was done on the approximately 70 patients who traveled to India for treatment, it’s impossible to quantify the actual effects of the treatment; suffice it to say that of the relatively few patients who have been heard from there are some who say they have seen sometimes dramatic improvement, and others who claim the CTP treatment to be a total failure. It’s impossible to objectively judge the veracity of subjective anecdotal patient reports, as any number of factors could contribute to the self-reported success or failure of any experimental medical procedure.

I will say by all accounts it does appear that Regenetek patients did receive some sort of stem cell therapy from licensed doctors while in India, effective or not; the scam that occurred lies mostly in the manner by which patients were recruited and then handled after they returned home, and in the financial shenanigans allegedly undertaken by Mr. Broeska and his colleagues. Unfortunately, because of the lack of any rigorous follow-up whatsoever, the actual effects of the treatment on the 70 or so patients who underwent the stem cell therapy will never be known, at least in any scientifically valid fashion. This is a real shame, for who knows what valuable lessons might have been learned if these patients had been properly assessed post treatment by qualified medical professionals?

As of this writing, the Indian company Genesis, which worked hand-in-hand with Regenetek until news of this scandal broke, is planning to continue offering stem cell treatments in India (at a cost of $16,050 US, as compared to the $45,000 charged by Regenetek), and even has plans to open a clinic in Trinidad despite the questions surrounding its offerings (click here). Patients who paid deposits to Regenetek but have not yet gone to India are demanding refunds, but thus far have had very little success getting any response. Posts have appeared on Facebook pages on which this matter has been discussed stating that representatives from Genesis or Regenetek will not be answering any inquiries posed on those sites. A Canadian doctor who worked closely with Regenetek has claimed she was “scammed” (click here). It seems that most of the players involved are now in serious “cover your ass” mode, and investigations into Regenetek by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other Canadian government agencies are now underway.

If any or all of the allegations made about Regenetek hold true, I hope all who read this will see this story as a cautionary tale about the dangers lurking in some corners of the world of alternative medicine. Distressingly, there are living, breathing human beings out there who somehow feel no guilt in taking advantage of desperate people with horrible illnesses. Back in high school I took an art appreciation class, most of whose content I don’t remember. I do remember, though, something that my art teacher, Mr. Rosen, once said: “Be careful, there’s human garbage out there…” Don't ask me what that quote had to do with art appreciation, but it sure was memorable, and quite apropos of charlatans who seek to profit from the desperation of sick people.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Call to the Cosmic Complaint Department…


Mr. Universe…?

Mrs. Universe…?




Well, if you’re listening, I think there’s been a terrible mistake. You see, I’ve got this, well, this creeping paralysis, and it just won’t stop creeping… and creeping… and creeping. It’s creeping so much that it’s creeping me out, and I’m afraid it’s about to swallow me. So, before things get completely out of hand, I’d like to lodge a formal complaint and see if I can get some kind of a cosmic credit, or even maybe a do-over. You know, like back in the schoolyard, when in the middle of a game something would go wrong and all the kids would agree to just wipe the slate clean, and make believe that whatever happened never happened. Do you think we could work something out along those lines? A do-over? Just one?

The department store Nordstrom is famous for taking back almost any item, even if it’s been used, and I’m thinking I must be due some kind of refund or other form of galactic recompense. I mean, if Nordstrom can do it, certainly you, a universe filled with multiple dimensions and all kinds of crazy quarks and pulsars and quasars, must have some way of correcting what has obviously been a royal screwup. No, I don’t have a receipt, but I do have a birth certificate and an expired driver’s license, will that do?

Because, really, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the way things were meant to play out. I’m fairly certain that somewhere along the line the story of my life has gone way off script, like in one of those old movies where somebody accidentally picks up the wrong suitcase at an airport or train station and their fates get switched with the person who picked up their suitcase, and all sorts of wackiness then ensues. I’m positive that somehow my cosmic suitcase got switched, and I’m not at all happy with the ensuing wackiness.

When I was younger, I had a preview reel of what my life would be like running through my head, and I’m certain that literally feeling sick and tired all of the time while becoming ever increasingly paralyzed wasn’t in any of the selected scenes playing on an endless loop in my noggin. I was going to be a famous writer, rock star, or movie director, and my life was supposed to be filled with all kinds of exciting escapades and adventures, with just enough drama thrown in to make things interesting. I wasn't expecting a fairytale, but the screen in my head wasn’t showing a disaster flick, either.

Yes, yes, I know, all of that might seem ridiculous and downright juvenile, but I never claimed to be the paragon of maturity. After all, you’re only young once but you can be immature forever, right? And yeah, I’m well aware that almost no one’s youthful dreams ever really come true, but I never ever imagined that dreams could so easily turn into nightmares. Looking back I’ll admit that I didn’t always make the best choices, and probably made more than my share of mistakes, but surely I never did anything bad enough to deserve this, did I?

I mean, I just watched a television interview with the serial killer Son of Sam, who slaughtered six people and terrorized New York City for months on end back when I was a teenager, and he looked healthy as a horse sitting there in prison. Doesn’t he deserve a nice dose of creeping paralysis? Or how about the monsters who rape or hurt children, or plot horrific terrorist attacks that kill dozens or hundreds of people? I see them on the news all the time, looking all hale and hearty. How about a liberal sprinkling of progressive multiple sclerosis for them?

Believe me, you don’t have to tell me that I’m no saint, but even with all of my missteps and blunders and mistakes, the person I hurt worst of all most often seems to have been myself. Being sick has given me all kinds of time to look back and analyze my past, and at this point I think my regrets have regrets. I’d love to be able to use some of the insights all of this introspection has given me to live a more worthy life and forge a future free of the dunderheaded moves of my past, but the way things are heading if I think too much about my future I might just poop in my pants. As a matter of fact, without being granted a cosmic refund or credit or do-over, pooping in my pants could very well be a large part of my future. Gross. And things could very well only go downhill from there.

I’ll admit that getting sick hasn’t been all bad, and in some ways it’s given me freedoms that I probably otherwise never would have realized. I was able to stop working and start writing, which is probably what I should have been doing all along. Before this creeping paralysis crept so far I was able to take lots of photos and videos from my wheelchair, fulfilling creative impulses I’d long dreamt of indulging (without the wheelchair part), but I’m afraid those days are probably over. I sure have learned a heckuva lot and met all kinds of interesting people, many of them fellow patients, most of whom, FYI, also don’t deserve the crap they’ve been slapped with. It would be nice, Mr. or Mrs. Cosmos, if you could find a way to cut them more than a little slack, too. I’ve discovered emotional and physical resources within myself that I didn’t know existed, which has been kind of cool. But now things are getting pretty dicey, and I think I’ve squeezed all the positives out of this experience that there are to be squeezed. In all honesty, I’m getting scared. Really, really scared.

So what do you say? Can you give a brother a break? How about this: forget about making me better, just stop me from getting any worse, okay? Certainly not the ideal situation from my perspective, but I’ll take it. How’s that for a compromise? See, I’m reasonable, not like all those asshats in Washington. Can’t we work something out? A little give-and-take? I’m not sure I have all that much left to give, but I’m open to suggestions. I’ll be right here waiting for your answer, just a pimple on a flea’s ass in this ever-expanding universe, but I trust that you’ll know where to find me.



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ho Ho Heave

Well, it seems that I got a bit of an early Christmas present this year – in the form of THE FLU! Not a present I asked for, wanted, or needed. I guess I opened the window and in flew Enza…

Suffice it to say that the flu and MS don't play well together.  As a result of their unholy alliance, I'm forced to compose this blog post from bed, using my iPad and a blogging app. The iPad is a wonderful little device, but it's voice recognition capabilities suck, at least for composing anything longer than just a few sentences. So, I'm going to have to keep this short, if only to keep from getting so frustrated that I throw the thing across the room, and I don't think Santa has a new iPad for me loaded up and ready to go on his sleigh. I am hoping that he leaves a new central nervous system for me under the tree, and if he doesn't I'm prepared to bring a lawsuit.

Just wanted to wish everybody a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Great Kwanzaa, and also a Happy New Year, just in case I don't get the chance to post again before 2015 rolls around. May the holidays bring all of you happiness, joy, and good health. Multiple sclerosis is no gift, but the ability to rise above it, even if only occasionally, most certainly is. Please try to make good use of that gift whenever you can, if only to stick your thumb in the eye of this Grinch of an illness.

The following is probably my favorite Christmas song of all time, released by a band called The Royal Guardsmen in 1969. I had this record when it first came out, when I was six years old, and I played it over and over and over again. I was a super big fan of the Peanuts gang, and Snoopy was my favorite character. The heroic little beagle's struggles against the dreaded Red Baron fired my six-year-old imagination, and this song, celebrating a short and thoroughly unexpected break in their epic battles, sparked a tender emotion in me that still smolders 45 years later.

This is the long version of the song, complete with a rather elaborate intro mimicking a radio broadcast from somewhere on the Western front in the middle of World War I. I hope you enjoy, and as the Red Baron says to Snoopy at the very moment that Snoopy thinks his number is up, "Merry Christmas, My Friend(s)!"…

Friday, December 12, 2014

Winter’s Discontents

(Apologies to The Mamas and The Papas)

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray
I needed to go outside, on a winter’s day
Struggled with socks, sweater, coat; but when all was done and said
Barely had the strength, to just get back into bed…

Please excuse the above bad poetry (actually, it’s a gross disservice to poems to even call it poetry), but I just couldn’t resist. Here in New York City, winter is once again upon us, and along with the season’s cold and inclement weather, for us gimps the winter months are chock full of hurdles and obstacles that the able-bodied need give nary a thought. Simply donning get all of the cold weather gear needed to brace oneself against the chill can prove so damned difficult that the mere prospect of getting out of the house can be daunting all by itself.

In theory, at least, I like winter. The monochromatic palette of the winter months appeals to my black and white aesthetics, and I spent enough years living in Fort Lauderdale (yechh) to know that most human beings look better wearing several layers of clothing. Back in my healthy days I was admittedly something of a clothes horse, my closets brimming with cool duds. When I married my wife I owned more pairs of shoes than she did, and Karen isn’t a one pair for all occasions type of gal. My fetish for shoes goes way back, and my mom likes to tell tales of how, even as a toddler, I would torment shoe salesman by making them haul out box after box of footwear until I found a pair that met my precocious exacting standards. Why my mom allowed the little munchkin me such free reign to terrorize shoe store employees will have to remain a story for another day, but suffice it to say that I think she quietly got a kick out of my shenanigans.

But I digress, the subject at hand is the perils of winter for those of us trying to get through life with uncooperative bodies. Whereas I used to take delight in such winter wear as warm socks, comfy sweaters, and fashionable outerwear, these days all of these items have been transformed into potential instruments of torture. The right side of my body is almost completely defunct – weak, spastic, emaciated and largely paralyzed. My left side is still functional, but is weakening, seemingly by the day. Additionally, the more effort I exert the less functional my left side becomes, and with my fatigue levels at an all-time high my energy reserves leave much to be desired. All of this conspires to transform the formerly simple act of getting dressed into a feat of exhausting contortions, the anticipation of which often makes the thought of getting out of the house an extremely unpalatable option, even though being sequestered away inside my apartment for days and days on end is a recipe for mental malfeasance that also needs to be avoided. Quite the conundrum, then, once the temperature plummets.

During the warm weather months getting ready to go outside is a relatively simple affair, although struggling into a pair of elastic waisted shorts, a pullover short-sleeved shirt, and slip on shoes isn’t nearly as easy as it used to be. Still, even in my current dilapidated state it’s just a few minutes’ tussle and then I’m in my chair and out the door, willfully ignoring the fact that yes, my disease is indeed progressing. Once the temperatures drops below, say, 60°F, things get infinitely more complicated, and the very fact of my distressing physical decline from one season to the next cannot be avoided. Things that were merely difficult to do last year have now become almost impossible, and no amount of denial can paper over this reality.

The first bugaboo to be faced when preparing to venture out of doors all by myself is a pair of nefarious garments called “socks”. With a little effort and ingenuity I can usually get my left sock on without much calamity, but getting on my infernal right sock requires the use of a not so handy dandy device called the “Deluxe Flexible Sock and Stocking Aid” (click here). Basically, this contraption consists of a piece of relatively stiff but flexible material with two long straps attached. The flexible material can be rolled into a cone, on whose skinny end a sock can be scrunched up and pulled over (this miraculous feat is accomplished by my wife Karen the night before I’m due to make an appearance out in the world). In theory, then, a person can place the device on the floor and insert their foot into the wide end, and then by tugging on the straps pull the sock onto their foot using the flexible cone thing as a kind of guide. I’m sure this works quite well if the user has at least some dexterity in their right leg and arm. My right leg below the knee, though, has as much dexterity as a piece of overcooked fettuccine, so using this device is increasingly becoming an exercise in futility. The notion that I’ve become too gimpy to use a device made specifically for gimps thrills me to no end, let me tell you. As does the prospect of facing subfreezing temperatures without the benefit of a pair of warm socks. Sigh.

Next up in the cavalcade of whimsy that has become the process of my getting dressed are pants. Luckily, a couple of years ago I discovered that the Duluth Trading Company was selling fully elastic waisted decent looking trousers, which negated my needing to struggle with buttons or clasps to fasten my pants, which even back then had become nearly impossible. For whatever reason the company no longer offers these garments, but I was wise enough to stock up while the getting was good. If anybody knows of similar apparel currently available, please let me know. As long as they aren’t too, you know, ugly. Amazing how resilient vanity is, even in the face of progressing decrepitude, isn’t it?

After struggling with socks and pants, next in line are shirts and sweaters. Even the pullover variety are getting harder and harder to manipulate (the button-down kind may as well be radioactive as far as I’m concerned), and after struggling into them a somewhat disheveled appearance seems just about unavoidable, as a sleeve or shoulder always seems to be bunched up or stretched out in a way I can’t remedy given my limited amount of nimbleness. I suppose I should be happy that I can still don these garments, but there’s that dastardly vanity thing again. If I have to be a gimp I want to be a fashionable gimp, dammit!

Last comes the horror of all horrors, the winter coat. I used to wear all kinds of cool leather winter outerwear, retro car coats and flight jackets, but though these garments still hang in our closet, getting them on and fastened without assistance has become pretty much impossible. My mother-in-law, who is quite handy with a needle and thread, altered a standard military issue peacoat into a Velcro fastened wonder for me, for which I am eternally thankful. When closed up, the thing looks like any other peacoat, as mom fashioned the coat to make it look like the buttons are still fully functional, and folks are always surprised and tickled when I simply rip it open, which I try to do with a dramatic flourish. Still, getting the thing on and off of my stiff, spastic, and weakened body is no picnic, but I suppose we should be appreciative for whatever good graces still lay within our domain. So, yes, I’m quite grateful for my one-of-a-kind Velcro fastened peacoat. As I once said in a previous post, it’s like haute couture for the disabled.

Jeez, it looks like I just composed an entire blog post about the scintillating topic of my getting dressed. How horrifyingly mundane. Thing is, this freaking disease has made even the mundane a challenge, activities that had previously been taken completely for granted now fraught with anxiety, pushing my physical abilities to their limits and conjuring up a maelstrom of disheartening emotion. While the boundaries of those physical limits grow ever tighter as the disease continues its relentless progression I endeavor to live by the motto “use it until you lose it”, but as the losses mount the limitations imposed by these increasing deficits makes using what’s left harder and harder and harder. A decade ago, even on the coldest day of the year, I could be dressed and out of the house in 10 minutes, max. These days, that ever so humdrum of activities called “getting dressed” takes about 45 minutes at best, after which I’m often quite literally so physically spent that I’d rather get undressed and climb back into bed than go about whatever business awaits me out-of-doors. 

But there is life yet to be lived, and with dogged persistence my comrades in arms (weak and spastic arms, but arms nonetheless) and I  forge ahead as best we can, each displaying a quiet steadfastness that should be the fount of much pride, if I do say so myself. I will admit, though, that it’s hard to be prideful when you’re stuck with a sweater half on and half off, the nefarious garment doing its best impression of a straitjacket. Damned disease.

If you’ve made it this far through my long-winded description of getting dressed (egad), you deserve to be rewarded with the following musical delight, a version of The Mamas and The Papas “California Dreaming”, performed by the very underrated classic soul and R&B artist Bobby Womack, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Enjoy…

Sunday, November 23, 2014

iConquerMS – Your Chance to Help Bloody the Beast

Okay, my fellow MSers, are you sick of sitting on the sidelines like powerless spectators observing a do or die contest that will determine your very own fate, waiting anxiously for neurologists, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies to ride to the rescue? Are you, like me, sick and tired of being sick and tired, weary of having very little ability to do anything about the situation except listen to the same old same old, held hostage by a status quo that offers more questions than answers? Do you just for once want to pick up a club and give MS a good smash in the kisser, to kick the fiend squarely where the sun don’t shine, to metaphorically extract a pound of flesh even as the disease quite literally attacks your own? Do you want to actively help conquer MS? Well, take note, that chance has arrived, and you needn’t even get up from your computer to help wage war on our mutual enemy, multiple sclerosis.

Enter iConquerMS, a new patient driven research initiative that allows those living with MS to participate in a groundbreaking research effort aimed at amassing the most comprehensive database about MS patients and the manifestations of their disease ever created. Through the web based iConquerMS portal (click here) patients can participate in a series of surveys and questionnaires that will soon form the most complete repository of information about the disease and those who suffer from it in existence. Researchers from around the globe will be granted access to this data, a wealth of information that could very well reveal brand new insights about the disease itself and those who suffer from it. In addition, the iConquerMS website provides patients and those who care about them the ability to address researchers directly with questions and suggestions, thereby helping to shape the future of MS research.

But first things first -  what exactly is iConquerMS? The face of iConquerMS is a user-friendly website, iConquerMS.org (click here), designed to allow MSers to easily contribute information about themselves and their disease. The driving idea behind iConquerMS is the concept of Big Data, a pooling of vast amounts of vital information that can reveal patterns and trends that otherwise wouldn’t be detected. Just as the intricate actions of the tides can’t be determined by observing a single drop of water but instead only by studying the oceans themselves, the complexities of multiple sclerosis may very well best be revealed by the pooling of data from tens of thousands of patients. Big Data-enabled MS research may help answer questions such as: what causes the disease and what strategies might prevent it, cure it, or arrest its progression; which treatments work best in which individuals; and what factors affect the progression of the disease.

The initial 18 month funding for iConquerMS has been provided by the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), an independent nonprofit organization authorized by Congress in 2010. Tasked with funding research that will provide a chance to overcome the challenges presented by traditional models of medical research, PCORI is working to close the gaps in evidence needed to make the paradigm shifting medical breakthroughs so urgently needed to rid the world of many dread diseases.

One of my favorite MS nonprofits, the Accelerated Cure Project (ACP), is playing a key role in administering iConquerMS. I’ve been involved with the ACP for eight or nine years now, ever since I contributed blood and spinal fluid samples to their MS repository, which was put together to allow researchers access to biologic material provided by a wide spectrum of MS patients. I've been told by anonymous sources that my Wheelchair Kamikaze blood and spinal fluid samples are being kept in a hyper secure facility alongside alien entities recovered from the Roswell flying saucer crash, watched around the clock by a super vigilant squad of ferociously trained Sasquatches. We don’t want that stuff falling into the wrong hands, who knows what bedlam might result?

On a much more serious note, the privacy of patients contributing their data on the iConquerMS.org website will be even more strictly guarded than my blood and spinal fluid samples and will never be sold to advertisers or otherwise be used for commercial purposes. The IConquerMS project is devoted solely to fostering vital research in the fight against multiple sclerosis, and the iConquerMS website is designed to be highly interactive, promoting contact between people living with MS and researchers studying the disease.

I urge all patients reading this to register at the iConquerMS website (click here) and fully participate in the program, and by doing so take up arms in the battle against our shared enemy. iConquerMS will provide updates on how the data is used and what insights are emerging from the research to all registered users.

Here’s a video that helps explain the iConquerMS project, and how the participation of individual MS patients can help vanquish MS. Knowledge is power, folks, and contributing your info to the knowledge base compiled by iConquerMS may go a long way towards giving multiple sclerosis the good swift kick in the ass it so richly deserves.

Thanks in advance for helping to further the cause…

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bits and Pieces: Multiple Universes Edition (includingLemtrada,theMS-Gut Connection, Progressive MS, Pharma to Doctor Payola,andmore…)

(For those receiving this via email, this post contains videos which can be viewed on the Wheelchair Kamikaze website – click here)

I’ve been reading about the very real possibility of the existence of multiple universes, a collection of hypotheses which state that our universe is actually part of a Multiverse made up of perhaps an infinite number of parallel or alternate universes (click here). As fantastical as this might sound, more and more physicists and cosmologists are coming to accept the notion that our universe is but one of many. In fact, most of the latest cosmological theories and mathematical models of existence point directly to the reality of a physical realm comprised of multitudinous universes, as well as many dimensions beyond the three which our tiny little brains can experience and comprehend.

The form that these multiple universes might take varies from theory to theory, from each universe abiding to its own unique set of physical laws and properties (and therefore some being quite bizarre and very different from our own), to a limitless number of universes similar to this one, with perhaps only subtle changes distinguishing each. The latter model supposes that there may even be an infinite number of like universes each playing out different timelines based on the boundless possible choices each of us makes on a daily basis. In other words, there could very well be universes out there where I don’t have MS, or where I finished that novel I started in 1988, or where my parents never got divorced. Of course, that would also mean that there are universes in which my parents never even met, in which case those universes would have never been graced by my presence. Such a pity.

Given the fact that I have way too much time on my hands and have been able to parse my old healthy life rather obsessively and in minute detail, picking out key instances when a different decision or action on my part might very well have resulted in an entirely different existence, maybe even one devoid of this damnable creeping paralysis, I find the idea of multiple or parallel universes extremely appealing. It gives me great pleasure to imagine a universe in which I am at this very moment driving a sleek convertible sports car way too fast down the Pacific Coast Highway. Or a universe where I would have never spent a minute watching a Tom Cruise movie (sorry, he makes my skin crawl). Or one in which my wife Karen and I just returned home from a long, leisurely walk in the park, strolling arm and arm with effortless grace and ease. How nice to think that all of these scenarios could very well be playing out as I write this, in universes coexisting with our own. Hey, the greatest minds in science say it's possible, and who am I to argue with the greatest minds in science?

Alas, here I am rooted in this universe, in which it’s time for yet another edition of Bits and Pieces, my semi regular compendium of mostly MS related news and items of interest. I hope you find this batch interesting, enjoyable, or at least tolerable, and here’s to the notion that in most other universes there’s no such thing as MS and thus no reason for some alternate version of me to write this blog or for some alternate version of you to read it.

Anyway, on with the show (I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but as I was writing it news broke that the MS drug Lemtrada had been approved by the FDA, which is a pretty big deal, so make yourself comfortable, this may be a long one)…

♦ Reversing a decision it made late last year, the FDA has approved the powerful drug Lemtrada for use in MS patients (click here). Since the drug was initially denied approval in the USA last December it was approved in over 40 other countries, including most nations in the European Union. US patients and neurologists had been agitating for its approval since last year’s FDA denial, as the drug had been shown to be remarkably effective in trials and had been used off label for some years to treat MS patients here in the USA (it was previously known as Campath). One MS neurologist I spoke to soon after the initial denial was quite upset by the FDA’s actions, telling me that the drug had not only rescued one of his patients who had been ravaged by a particularly aggressive case of relapsing remitting MS, but had actually allowed the patient to recover all the way from completely bedridden to back to work.

Lemtrada (chemical name alemtuzumab) is an intravenous drug that works by wiping out a patient’s existing immune system and then allowing it to reconstitute, presumably without the autoimmune tendencies that many believe play a major role in the MS disease process. In some respects, this is the same mechanism as HSCT, the type of stem cell therapy in which a patient’s immune system is ablated using a powerful chemotherapy regimen and then rebooted using the patient’s own bone marrow derived stem cells. It appears that Lemtrada achieves this same goal in less dramatic fashion.

Unlike all other existing MS disease modifying drugs, Lemtrada is not meant to be used indefinitely by the patients to whom it is given. Instead, the drug is administered intravenously for five consecutive days, and then again one year later for three consecutive days. Some patients may require additional infusions at some point down the line, but most do not. Trials have shown that in about 70% of patients with active RRMS the drug eliminates all signs of disease activity (relapses and new lesions) for at least three years after treatment, and in some cases for many years more. In other words, Lemtrada has been shown to put the long-term kibosh on all MS symptoms for the majority of patients with active relapsing remitting disease who have gone through the treatment protocol without further dosing, a result not seen with any other existing MS drug therapy. Some patients have even experienced a reversal of their symptoms, regaining neurological function that had been lost to the disease. As has been the case for all MS drugs so far, Lemtrada unfortunately has no apparent benefit for patients suffering from progressive MS.

These astounding results do not come without risk, however, as a majority of treated patients develop some secondary autoimmune disorders (most often autoimmune thyroid disease, which can typically be controlled with medication), and a small percentage (1%-3%) develop a very serious autoimmune blood disorder, which if caught early can be remedied before any harm is done. As might be imagined, the long term effects on MS patients by a drug this powerful are hard to predict, but the drug has been used to treat patients suffering from various blood cancers for decades. For these reasons, patients treated with Lemtrada must be monitored very closely (most likely in the form of monthly blood tests) for years after their last infusion of the drug.

In the UK, Lemtrada has been approved as a first-line therapy for patients with highly active RRMS. Here in the USA, the FDA has approved Lemtrada only as a third line drug, to be given to patients whose disease has not previously responded to two different MS therapies. This restriction may prove to be problematic, since there are indications that early treatment with the drug provides patients with the best chance for success, in the form of a complete and long-lasting remission of all MS signs and symptoms. For a full discussion of Lemtrada and its associated issues, I urge you read this article recently posted on the always informative Multiple Sclerosis Research Blog, which is maintained by neurologists at Barts and the London Medical School in the UK (click here).

Lemtrada could be a game changing drug for many RRMS patients, particularly those hardest hit by the disease, but the drug’s risk/reward scenario may prove daunting to many patients and neurologists. It will be very interesting to see how adoption of this drug plays out over the coming months and years. Will the prospect of years without any disease symptoms whatsoever tempt patients to try Lemtrada despite the drug’s potentially serious side effect profile?

Wouldn’t it be nice if researchers could come up with a highly effective MS therapy that didn’t scare the living shit out of the patients who it is supposed to help? Perhaps in an alternate universe all forms of MS can be effectively treated with hot fudge sundaes. I hope some version of me is living in that universe.

Edited To Add: a reader who has worked with this drug in her job as an oncology nurse left the following comment, which I thought valuable enough to place into the body of this post.:

As a former oncology nurse, I am familiar with Campath and this drug scares me. You can say that it has been used in treatment for blood cancer for years, but you may not know is that it is not used often and the practice I worked for stopped giving it in our usual outpatient clinic because of severe infusion reactions. There were even deaths, although that did not happen at our facility. I treated several patients with the drug and the infusion reactions were significant. The dosage and frequency of treatment is likely very different for MS, but I have seen what it can do and it is definitely a big gun that should be used very carefully.

As I previously noted, Lemtrada (the same drug as Campath) is used differently to treat MS than it was to treat cancer, but the concerns raised are certainly valid. Infusion reactions are reactions that occur while the drug is being given intravenously to a patient. Such reactions were noted in the Lemtrada MS trials, but were not deemed to be dangerous enough to prohibit the approval for the drug for use in the treatment of active relapsing remitting MS. Still, yet another variable to consider when presented with the option of using Lemtrada to treat your disease. As always, knowledge is power, and I thank Mary Beth Knapp for contributing this information.

Edited Again to Add: the folks at the Multiple Sclerosis Research Blog have posted some very interesting and valuable information on taking the risk out of Lemtrada. One of the topics discussed are infusion reactions, so this is a very pertinent and important read (click here).

♦ There has been a lot of chatter recently about the relationship between the gut and the nervous system, with evidence pointing to a direct connection between dysfunction within the digestive system and disorders of the brain and spine. One study found a relationship between a disease known as “leaky gut syndrome” and multiple sclerosis and other inflammatory diseases, at least in mice (click here). Researchers found that mice with leaky gut syndrome had higher levels of inflammatory immune cells and lower levels of immune cells that suppress inflammation, leading those mice to suffer more severely when induced to develop the mouse version of MS (on a side note, the mouse version of MS is an absolutely horrible mimic of the human disease and I usually tend to discount almost all studies that rely on it, but in this case the findings are backed up by similar observations in people).

A fascinating article in the New York Times explored the relationship between celiac disease and disorders of the nervous system (click here). Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the gut triggered by the gluten proteins contained in wheat and other grains. The article details several cases in which diseases supposedly rooted in the central nervous system, like dementia and autism, were completely reversed when patients were found to have celiac disease and put on gluten-free diets. Pretty amazing stuff, which only further fuels my suspicion that many if not most MS patients (and patients suffering from other nervous system disorders) are afflicted with some as yet unidentified systemic disease rather than one confined strictly to the brain and spinal cord. Unfortunately, modern medicine has become so specialized that each physician tends to focus only at those areas of their particular expertise when examining a patient without giving enough thought to other areas of physiology that might be impacting the patient’s condition, in effect missing the forest for the trees.

Other studies have looked at the trillions of single celled organisms that populate the gut (known as the gut biome), and found that the gut biome of MS patients is often markedly different than those not suffering from the disease (click here). Normally the relationship between our bodies and the microbes that inhabit the gut is mutually beneficial. However, it seems that in patients with MS and some other immune related diseases the mix of microbes in the gut is noticeably altered. There is so much mounting evidence that links the gut biome to MS that four major US multiple sclerosis research centers have formed the MS Microbiome Consortium to further investigate the role of the microbiome in multiple sclerosis. Turns out that 80% of our immune system is contained within our gut. Who knew?

If you find all of this interesting and who would like the chance to discover just what little buggers are residing in your gut, then you’re in luck! The Human Food Project is currently running the American Gut program, which for $99 will provide a kit with which you can sample your saliva, skin, and poop (I know, yuck) to find out precisely what microbes are living on and in you (click here). The Human Food Project will do a complete DNA analysis of your samples and return a full report. The American Gut program is a crowd funded research effort, so your $99 will not only go towards purchasing your sampling kit but also help fund this ongoing project. I ran all of this info past the naturopath who works at my MS clinic before signing up, and she said that there is no guarantee that the results of this analysis will turn up anything actionable, but that you never know. At worst I’d be helping out with a valuable research initiative. Good enough for me, so I’m currently awaiting the arrival of my saliva/skin/poop testing kit. BTW, for readers residing in the UK, there is also a UK Gut program, so all you British folks can participate as well (click here).

♦ I’ve previously written about the problem of misdiagnosing MS on quite a few occasions, and here I go again. It’s estimated that between 5%-15% of patients diagnosed with MS are not actually suffering from the disease but instead from one of the dozens of other conditions that can mimic multiple sclerosis, a notion that is quite disconcerting to say the least. I myself am suffering from some strange mix of increasingly debilitating symptoms that may or may not be multiple sclerosis, so this issue is of particular interest to me. The website EmaxHealth has recently run a series of short and easily digestible articles on this subject, all of which are worth reading. The first is titled simply “Misdiagnosing Multiple Sclerosis” (click here). Other articles in this series include “Is the Diagnosis of Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis?” (click here), “Is It Multiple Sclerosis or Transverse Myelitis?” (click here), and “Is Multiple Sclerosis Mainly an Autoimmune Disease?” (click here). As I’ve also stated previously it’s easy to drive yourself nuts with this kind of information, so be careful, but if you suspect you may have been misdiagnosed these articles could be very valuable reading.

♦ Progressive multiple sclerosis is a particularly nasty form of the disease, in which patients don’t suffer from the onset of MS attacks (relapses), but instead suffer a steady neurologic decline without ever returning to their previous level of functionality. If I do have MS, it’s of the progressive type, and I’ve been forced to watch myself go from slight limp to nearly complete gimp over the last 11 ½ years without any respite or period of stability. Take it for me, this sucks. Roughly 10% of MS patients suffer from progressive disease from the outset, a form of MS called Primary Progressive (PPMS). A substantial number of people with relapsing remitting disease (RRMS) eventually transition to Secondary Progressive disease (SPMS), at which time they stop experiencing relapses and remissions and instead start accumulating ever-increasing neurologic dysfunction. Currently, there are no effective treatments for any form of progressive multiple sclerosis.

The International Progressive MS Alliance (click here) was formed in 2012 to specifically address the vexing problems posed by progressive multiple sclerosis, and to speed up research and the development of therapies aimed specifically at this form of the disease. The Alliance recently announced the funding of 22 research projects in nine countries, all aimed at helping to unravel the mysteries of progressive MS and to eventually smite this horrendous beast (click here). Let’s hope the Alliance realizes its ambitious goals sooner rather than later, as patients suffering from progressive MS have for too long been ignored by the medical research community.

They say a picture is worth 1000 words, so a video must be worth millions, and the following video put out by The International Progressive MS Alliance sums up the horrendous nature of progressive MS and the problems the disease presents to researchers better than any of my long-winded blog posts ever could. Please watch, but I’ll try to sum up the message of the video in one word: “Help!”

♦ I’ve always found it mind-boggling that pharmaceutical companies are allowed to pay off the doctors who prescribe their drugs. Of course, these actions are never quite as blatant as bald-faced bribery, and instead these payments are dressed up as speakers’ fees, trips to educational seminars, meals provided to office staff, etc. Despite this song and dance, the fact remains that many doctors receive significant amounts of money from pharmaceutical companies, and let’s face it, Big Pharma wouldn’t be doling out all that dough if they didn’t believe it was influencing the actions of the doctors receiving their “generosity”.

If you’ve ever wondered just what kinds of gifts, honorariums, and other payments your doctors may be getting from their pharmaceutical masters (oops, I mean partners), you are now in luck, at least if you live in the USA. Courtesy of the much-maligned Affordable Care Act, a new website is now online that allows patients to enter their doctors' name, click a button, and discover just what pharmaceutical company payments their physicians received in 2013 (click here). I just entered the name of one of my physicians and came up with four pages of pharmaceutical company payments to him, most for “food and beverage” expenditures. It sure is nice to know that he and his staff are well fed.

Let me be clear, I genuinely like this doctor, but the fact that pharmaceutical companies are legally allowed to engage in this kind of crap makes me want to vomit in my mouth. Perhaps if we all print out the info we get from this website and present it to our physicians, along with some pointed questions, our esteemed doctors may think twice about engaging in such activities. Whoops, there I go, crossing over into yet another parallel universe. Silly me.

♦ Okay, now that this blog post is threatening to rival the length of Webster’s Unabridged, I’ll mercifully bring it to a close. As has become my tradition (and I really do enjoy creating my own traditions) I’ll end this edition of Bits and Pieces with a music video by an artist in the “retro-soul/neo-soul” genre. This time around I present you with Sharon Jones, a sublime belter who simply oozes all of the innumerable and unquantifiable qualities that define the notions of funk and soul. This video dates back to 2007, so I guess it’s kind of old at this point, but Sharon Jones is still going strong and deserves as much attention as she can get. Though the video looks like it was made in the 1960s, trust me, it’s a product of the 21st century, although it was shot with vintage TV cameras that its producers bought on eBay for about 50 bucks. So get ready all you cuties to shake your booties to the infectious sounds of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a righteous, mighteous, and out of sighteous infection for which I want no vaccination! Bring it on…

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Patient Taking Tecfidera Develops PML, Later Dies – Outlier or Harbinger of Things to Come?

Last week, in disclosing the company’s quarterly financial report, pharmaceutical giant Biogen revealed that a patient taking its oral MS drug Tecfidera had developed the dreaded brain infection PML and later died of pneumonia (click here). This news understandably created much anxiety in the MS population, particularly among those patients currently taking Tecfidera and those considering starting the drug. Let’s take a careful look at the details of this unfortunate news and try to properly assess its impact.

In the roughly 18 months since it was first approved by the FDA, Tecfidera has become a blockbuster drug, generating nearly $2 billion in sales over the last nine months alone (click here). The tremendous financial success of Tecfidera is in large part due to its ease of use (it’s a pill), relatively high efficacy rates, and a perceived low risk of serious side effects. Until this case of PML was reported, the Tecfidera side effects receiving the most attention were flushing and gastrointestinal distress, both of which subside after 6-8 weeks in the majority of patients taking the drug. Obviously, adding the risk of PML to the equation could change this calculus significantly, so it’s vitally important to parse this new information as best as possible to try and appreciate the true risk posed by PML in the Tecfidera MS population.

It’s essential to understand just what is PML, and how Tecfidera’s mechanism of action might increase the risk of contracting the disease. PML (Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy) is an infection of the brain and central nervous system that is caused by the JC virus, a pathogen that is present in about 50%-60% of the general population (click here). Under normal circumstances, those carrying the JC virus are completely without symptoms and the virus is kept in check by the human immune system. In patients whose immune systems have been compromised (for instance, people with AIDS),  the JC virus can lead to PML, an infection that destroys myelin in large portions of the brain, leading to significant disability, and, in many cases, death. PML is a much-publicized potential side effect of the intravenous MS drug Tysabri, which profoundly suppresses immune system activity in the central nervous system of patients taking the drug, thereby leaving those carrying the JC virus potentially susceptible to the infection. This is why strict testing for JC virus antibodies has been instituted for all patients on Tysabri therapy. PML has also been seen patients with MS as well as other diseases taking other immunosuppressive drugs, as these drugs can, by their very nature,  compromise the body’s ability to keep the JC virus under control.

Tecfidera (whose chemical name is dimethyl fumarate) is purported to work through a variety of actions. The drug is thought to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, but studies have definitively shown that one of the drug’s primary actions is immunosuppression. In trials, Tecfidera was demonstrated to reduce the amount of lymphocytes (infection fighting white blood cells) by about 28% in treated patients (click here, the pertinent information is on page 9). While this level of lymphocyte suppression is not considered to put patients at any kind of serious risk, it could very well account for Tecfidera’s efficacy in treating multiple sclerosis, as the disease is, at least in part, driven by an aberrant immune response.

These same studies also found that about 4% (1 in 25) of patients treated with Tecfidera develop a more serious drop in lymphocyte count, resulting in a condition known as lymphopenia. Severe lymphopenia can indeed open the patient up to opportunistic infections, and for this reason FDA guidelines call for regular blood testing to monitor for the condition in Tecfidera treated patients (click here). Currently, the FDA suggests patients have their blood counts checked once a year, but in practice many neurologists are being far more diligent in testing their Tecfidera treated patients. This recent news about PML and Tecfidera could very well result in more stringent blood testing requirements, but even without such a mandate it seems wise that patients be tested quite regularly to check that their lymphocyte counts remain at safe levels.

Although there currently aren’t many available details on the PML Tecfidera case reported last week by Biogen, it is known that the patient in question had been on Tecfidera for nearly 5 years (she started taking the drug during the approval trials), and had been experiencing severe lymphopenia for 3 ½ years. Logic would seem to dictate that a patient be taken off the drug as soon as their lymphocyte counts drop into dangerous territory, so the fact that this unfortunate soul was left with severe lymphopenia unaddressed for years on end is, to my mind, completely inexplicable. Indeed, it would seem that given the circumstances, her neurologist was courting disaster. Again, I am basing this assessment on scant details, but I have a hard time imagining any scenario that would warrant keeping a patient on a medication that was suppressing their immune system to dangerous levels for such an extended period of time. If the specifics of the case are as originally reported, the fact that the patient was kept on Tecfidera for three and half years after she first tested positive for severe lymphopenia quite frankly boggles the mind.

If anything, this case would seem more to underscore the importance of diligent patient monitoring than any inherent potential danger posed by Tecfidera. Ceasing the drug in the face of troubling blood test results should be a no-brainer. Patients experiencing severe lymphopenia in the Tecfidera trials saw their lymphocyte counts increase significantly within four weeks of stopping the drug. It is currently not known how long is required for lymphocyte counts to return to pre-Tecfidera levels.

While it would be extremely concerning if the patient in question developed PML while her lymphocyte counts remained at acceptable levels, the facts as now known indicate that this simply was not the case. Given the immunosuppressive properties of Tecfidera, it would appear to be vitally important that patients be regularly tested to check their white blood cell counts. It would seem that the FDA suggestion of once yearly blood tests is insufficient, and I know many neurologists are checking their patients much more frequently, more on the order of at least once every three months. Monitoring for JC virus might make sense if PML were to be seen in Tecfidera patients not experiencing severe lymphopenia, but at this point the available evidence doesn't seem to merit the taking of this extra step. Then again, any extra bit of information is valuable, and I'd imagine that some neurologists might Institute testing for JC virus in their Tecfidera patients on their own. Tecfidera is proving to be quite effective in reducing relapse rates and the formation of new brain lesions when used to treat RRMS (click here), and with proper monitoring it would appear that the drug is actually quite safe.. Of course, the drug has only been on the market for a year and a half, and only time will reveal the true long term efficacy and safety of Tecfidera.

As this tragic PML case demonstrates, the fact that Tecfidera can induce severe lymphopenia in 1 out of 25 patients taking it should make both patients and doctors alike keenly aware of the need for proper blood count monitoring. Patients shouldn’t be shy about requesting such tests if their neurologists don’t currently require them. Knowledge is power, folks, and patients need to equip themselves as best as possible with the most accurate data available and take an active role in making treatment choices. The doctor-patient relationship should be a partnership, not a dictatorship. It’s terribly unfortunate that PML has entered the Tecfidera picture, but the case in question seems much more like the exception than the rule. This is not to say that this recent news shouldn’t be cause for concern, but it certainly shouldn’t induce panic among those currently taking the drug or those considering Tecfidera therapy.

It is my fervent hope that future MS therapies will turn away from immunosuppression and find some other more effective, more benign mechanism for fighting the disease. But, as the current crop of drugs are generating billions and billions of dollars in profit for the companies that make them, it will likely be quite some time before my hopes are realized. For now, it is imperative that patients as much as possible use their heads, and, armed with accurate information, work in tandem with their physicians to best beat back the beast that is MS. At this point, Tecfidera appears to be a valuable tool in this quest, but like all tools it needs to be used intelligently and with care.