Listening is fine. Action is better. Why patients want more than just a chance to have their say.

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Type in the phrase “the power of the patient voice” in any online search engine and you’ll generate thousands of articles and posts about the importance of listening to what patients have to say. The articles are on websites run by a diverse group from patients and researchers, to advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical companies. Everyone it seems recognizes the importance of listening to what the patient says. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has gotten in on the act. But what isn’t as clear is does all that talking and listening lead to any action?

In the last few years the FDA launched its ‘Patient-Focused Drug Development Initiative’, a series of public meetings where FDA officials invited patients and patient advocates to a public meeting to offer their perspectives on their condition and the available therapies. Each meeting focused on a different disease or condition, 20 in all, ranging from Parkinson’s and breast cancer to Huntington’s and sickle cell disease.

The meetings followed a standard format. Patients and patient advocates were invited to talk about the disease in question and its impact on their life, and then to comment on the available treatments and what they would like to see happen that could make their life better.

The FDA then gathered all those observations and comments, including some submitted online, and put them together in a report. Here’s where you can find all 20 FDA Voice of the Patient reports.  The reports all end with a similar concluding paragraph. Here’s what the conclusion for the Parkinson’s patient report said:

“The insight provided during this meeting will aid in FDA’s understanding of what patients truly value in a treatment and inform the agency’s evaluation of the benefits and risk of future treatments for Parkinson’s disease patients.”

And now what? That’s the question many patients and patient advocates are asking. I spoke with several people who were involved in these meetings and all came away feeling that the FDA commissioners who held the hearings were sincere and caring. But none believe it has made any difference, that it has led to any changes in policy.

For obvious reasons none of those I spoke to wanted to be identified. They don’t want to do anything that could in any way jeopardize a potential treatment for their condition. But many felt the hearings were just window dressing, that the FDA held them because it was required by Congress to do so. The Ageny, however, is not required to act on the conclusions or make any changes based on the hearings. And that certainly seems to be what’s happened.

Producing a report is fine. But if that report then gets put on a shelf and ignored what is the value of it? Patients and patient advocates want their voices to be heard. But more importantly they want what they say to lead to some action, to have some positive outcome. Right now they are wondering if they were invited to speak, but no one was really listening.

 

 

The power of the patient’s voice: how advocates shape clinical trials and give hope to those battling deadly diseases

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The Stack family: L to R Alex, Natalie, Nancy & Jeff

Tennis great Martina Navratilova was once being interviewed about what made her such a great competitor and she said it was all down to commitment. When pressed she said “the difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs; the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.”

That’s how I feel about the important role that patients and patient advocates play in the work that we do at CIRM. Those of us who work here are involved. The patients and patient advocates are committed. This isn’t just their life’s work;  it’s their life.

I was reminded of that last week when I had the privilege of talking with Nancy Stack, the Patient Representative on a Clinical Advisory Panel (CAP) we have created for a program to treat cystinosis. She has an amazing story to tell. But before we get to that I have to do a little explaining.

Cystinosis is a rare disease, affecting maybe only 2,000 people worldwide, that usually strikes children before they are two years old and can lead to end stage kidney failure before their tenth birthday. Current treatments are limited, which is why the average life expectancy for someone with this is only around 27 years.

When we fund a project that is already in, or hoping to be in, a clinical trial we create a CAP to help assist the team behind the research. The CAP consists of a CIRM Science Officer, an independent scientific expert in this case for cystinosis, and a Patient Representative.

The patient’s voice

The Patient Representative’s role is vital because they can help the researchers understand the needs of the patient and take those needs into account when designing the trial. In the past, many researchers had little contact with patients and so designed the trial around their own needs. The patients had to fit into that model. We think it should be the other way around; that the model should fit the patients. The Patient Representatives help us make that happen.

Nancy Stack did just that. At the first meeting of the CAP she showed up with a list of 38 questions that she and other families with cystinosis had come up with for the researchers. They went from the blunt – “Will I die from the treatment” – to the practical –  “How will children/teens keep up with school during the process?” – and included a series of questions from a 12-year old girl with the disease – “Will I lose my hair because I’ve been growing it out for a long time? Will I feel sick? Will it hurt?”

Nancy says the questions are not meant to challenge the researcher, in this case U.C. San Diego’s Stephanie Cherqui, but to ensure that if the trial is given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that every patient who signs up for it knows exactly what they are getting into. That’s particularly important because many of those could be children or teenagers.

Fully informed

“As parents we know the science is great and is advancing, but we have real people who are going to go through this treatment so we have a responsibility to know what will it mean to them. Patients know they could die of the disease and so this research has real world implications for them.”

“I think without this, without allowing the patients voice to be heard, you would have a hard time recruiting patients for this kind of clinical trial.”

Nancy says not only was Dr. Cherqui not surprised by the questions, she welcomed them. Dr. Cherqui has been supported and funded by the Cystinosis Research Foundation for years and Nancy says she regards the patients and patient advocates as partners in this journey:

“She knows we are not challenging her, we’re supporting her and helping her cover every aspect of the research to help make it work.”

Nancy became committed to finding a cure for cystinosis when her daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with the condition when she was just 7 months old. The family were handed a pamphlet titled “What to do when your child has a terminal disease” and told there was no cure.

Birthday wish

In 2003, on the eve of her 12th birthday, Nancy asked Natalie what her wish was for her birthday. She wrote on a napkin “to have my disease go away forever.” The average life expectancy for people with cystinosis at that point was 18. Nancy told her husband “We have to do something.”

They launched the Cystinosis Research Foundation and a few weeks later they held their first fundraiser. That first year they raised $427,000, an impressive amount for such a rare disease. Last year they raised $4.94 million. Every penny of that $4.94 million goes towards research, making them the largest funders of cystinosis research in the world.

“We learned that for there to be hope there has to be research, and to do research we needed to raise funds. Without that we knew our children would not survive this disease.”

Natalie is now 26, a graduate of Georgetown and USC, and about to embark on a career in social work. Nancy knows many others are not so fortunate:

“Every year we lose some of our adults, even some of our teens, and that is unbelievably hard. Those other children, wherever they may live, they are my children too. We are all connected to each other and that’s what motivates me every day. Having a child with this disease means that time is running out and there must be a commitment to work hard every day to find a cure, and never giving up until you do.”

That passion for the cause, that compassion for others and determination to help others makes the Patient Representative on the CAP so important. They are a reminder that we all need to work as hard as we can, as fast as we can, and do everything we can to help these trials succeed.

And we are committed to doing that.


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Asterias’ stem cell clinical trial shows encouraging results for spinal cord injury patients

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Jake Javier; Asterias spinal cord injury clinical trial participant

When researchers are carrying out a clinical trial they have two goals: first, show that it is safe (the old “do no harm” maxim) and second, show it works. One without the other doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run.

A few weeks ago Asterias Biotherapeutics showed that their CIRM-funded stem cell therapy for spinal cord injuries appeared to be safe. Now their data suggests it’s working. And that is a pretty exciting combination.

Asterias announced the news at the annual scientific meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society in Vienna, Austria. These results cover five people who got a transplant of 10 million cells. While the language is muted, the implications are very encouraging:

“While early in the study, with only 4 of the 5 patients in the cohort having reached 90 days after dosing, all patients have shown at least one motor level of improvement so far and the efficacy target of 2 of 5 patients in the cohort achieving two motor levels of improvement on at least one side of their body has already been achieved.”

What does that mean for the people treated? A lot. Remember these are people who qualified for this clinical trial because of an injury that left them pretty much paralyzed from the chest down. Seeing an improvement of two motor levels means they are regaining some use of their arms, hands and fingers, and that means they are regaining the ability to do things like feeding, dressing and bathing themselves. In effect, it is not only improving their quality of life but it is also giving them a chance to lead an independent life.

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Kris Boesen, Asterias clinical trial participant

One of those patients is Kris Boesen who regained the use of his arms and hands after becoming the first patient in this trial to get a transplant of 10 million cells. We blogged about Kris here

Asterias says of the 5 patients who got 10 million cells, 4 are now 90 days out from their transplant. Of those:

  • All four have improved one motor level on at least one side
  • 2 patients have improved two motor levels on one side
  • One has improved two motor levels on both sides

What’s also encouraging is that none of the people treated experienced any serious side effects or adverse events from the transplant or the temporary use of immunosuppressive drugs.

Steve Cartt, CEO of Asterias, was understandably happy with the news and that it allows them to move to the next phase:

“We are quite encouraged by this first look at efficacy results and look forward to reporting six-month efficacy data as planned in January 2017.  We have also just recently been cleared to begin enrolling a new cohort and administering to these new patients a much higher dose of 20 million cells.  We look forward to begin evaluating efficacy results in this higher-dose cohort in the coming months as well.”

People with spinal cord injuries can regain some function spontaneously so no one is yet leaping to the conclusion that all the progress in this trial is due to the stem cells. But to see all of the patients in the 10 million stem cell group do well is at the very least a positive sign. Now the hope is that these folks will continue to do well, and that the next group of people who get a 20 million cell transplant will also see improvements.

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Roman Reed, spinal cord injury patient advocate

While the team at Asterias were being cautiously optimistic, Roman Reed, whose foundation helped fund the early research that led to this clinical trial, was much less subdued in his response. He was positively giddy:

“If one patient only improves out of the five, it can be an outlier, but with everyone improving out of the five this is legit, this is real. Cures are happening!”

 

Making a deposit in the Bank: using stem cells from children with rare diseases to find new treatments

Part of The Stem Cellar series on ten years of iPS cells

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For Chris Waters, the motivation behind her move from big pharmaceutical companies and biotech to starting a non-profit organization focused on rare diseases in children is simple: “What’s most important is empowering patient families and helping them accelerate research to the clinical solutions they so urgently need for their child ,” she says.

Chris is the founder of Rare Science. Their mission statement – Accelerating Cures for RARE Kids – bears a striking resemblance to ours here at CIRM, so creating a partnership between us just seemed to make sense. At least it did to Chris. And one thing you need to know about Chris, is that when she has an idea you should just get out of the way, because she is going to make it happen.

“The biggest gap in drug development is that we are not addressing the specific needs of children, especially those with rare diseases.  We need to focus on kids. They are our future. If it takes 14 years and $2 billion to get FDA approval for a new drug, how is that going to help the 35% of the 200 million children across the world that are dying before 5 years of age because they have a rare disease? That’s why we created Rare Science. How do we help kids right now, how do we help the families? How do we make change?”

Banking on CIRM for help

One of the changes she wanted to make was to add the blood and tissue samples from one of the rare disease patient communities she works with to the CIRM Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Bank. This program is collecting samples from up to 3,000 Californians – some of them healthy, some suffering from diseases such as autism, Alzheimer’s, heart, lung and liver disease and blindness. The samples will be turned into iPS cells – pluripotent stem cells that have the ability to be turned into any other type of cell in the body – enabling researchers to study how the diseases progress, and hopefully leading to the development of new therapies.

 

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Lilly Grossman: photo courtesy LA Times

Chris says many kids with rare diseases can struggle for years to get an accurate diagnosis and even when they do get one there is often nothing available to help them. She says one San Diego teenager, Lilly Grossman, was originally diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and it took years to identify that the real cause of her problems was a mutation in a gene called ADCY5, leading to abnormal involuntary movement. At first Lily’s family felt they were the only ones facing this problem. They have since started a patient family organization (ADCY5.org) that supports others with this condition.

“Even though we know that the affected individuals have the gene mutation, we have no idea how the gene causes the observable traits that are widely variable across the individuals we know.  We need research tools to help us understand the biology of ADCY5 and other rare disease – it is not enough to just know the gene mutation. We always wanted to do a stem cell line that would help us get at these biological questions.”

Getting creative

But with little money to spend Chris faced what, for an ordinary person, might have been a series of daunting obstacles. She needed consent forms so that everyone donating tissue, particularly the children, knew exactly what was involved in giving samples and how those samples would be used in research.  She also needed materials to collect the samples. In addition she needed to find doctors and sites around the world where the families were located to help with the sample collection.  All of this was going to cost money, which for any non-profit is always in short supply.

So she went to work herself, creating a Research Participant’s Bill of Rights – a list of the rights that anyone taking part in medical research has. She developed forms explaining to children, teenagers and parents what happens if they give skin or blood samples as part of medical research, telling them how an individual’s personal medical health history may be used in research studies. And then she turned to medical supply companies and got them to donate the tubes and other materials that would be needed to collect and preserve the tissue and blood samples.

Even though ADCY5 is a very rare condition, Chris has collected samples from 42 individuals representing 13 different families, some affected with the condition as well as their unaffected siblings and parents. These samples come from families all around the world, from the US and Europe, to Canada and Australia.

“With CIRM we can build stem cell lines. We can lower the barrier of access for researchers who want to utilize these valuable stem cell lines that they may not have the resources to generate themselves.  The cell lines, in the hands of researchers, can potentially accelerate understanding of the biology. They can help us identify targets to focus on for therapies. They can help us screen currently approved medications or drugs, so we have something now that could help these kids now, not 14 years from now.”

The samples Chris collects will be made available to researchers not just here in the US, but around the world. Chris hopes this program will serve as a model for other rare diseases, creating stem cell lines from them to help close the gap between discovery research and clinical impact.

Rare bears for rare disease

But in everything she does, in the end it always comes down to the patient families. Chris says so many children and families battling a rare disease feel they are alone. So she created with her team, the RARE Bear program to let them know they aren’t alone, that they are part of a worldwide community of support. She says each bear is handmade by the RARE Bear Army which spans 9 countries including 45 states in the US.  Each RARE Bear is different, because “they are all one of a kind bears for one of a kind kids. And that’s why we are here, to help rare kids one bear at a time.”  The RARE Bear program, also helps with rare disease awareness, patient outreach and rare disease community building which is key for RARE Science Research Programs.

It’s working. Chris recently got this series of photos and notes from the parents of a young girl in England, after they got their bear.

“I wanted to say a huge heartfelt thank you for my daughters Rare bear. It arrived today to Essex, England & as you can see from my pictures Isabella loves her already! We have named her Faith as a reminder to never give up!”

Young man with spinal cord injury regains use of hands and arms after stem cell therapy

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Kris Boesen – Photo courtesy USC

Hope is such a fragile thing. We cling to it in bad times. It offers us a sense that we can bear whatever hardships we are facing today, and that tomorrow will be better.

Kris Boesen knows all about holding on to hope during bad times. On March 6th of this year he was left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. Kris and his parents were warned the damage might be permanent.

Kris says at that point, life was pretty bleak:

“I couldn’t drink, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t text or pretty much do anything, I was basically just existing. I wasn’t living my life, I was existing.”

For Kris and his family hope came in the form of a stem cell clinical trial, run by Asterias Biotherapeutics and funded by CIRM. The Asterias team had already enrolled three patients in the trial, each of whom had 2 million cells transplanted into their necks, primarily to test for safety. In early April Kris became the first patient in the trial to get a transplant of 10 million stem cells.

Within two weeks he began to show signs of improvement, regaining movement and strength in his arms and hands:

“Now I have grip strength and do things like open a bottle of soda and feed myself. Whereas before I was relying on my parents, now after the stem cell therapy I am able to live my life.”

The therapy involves human embryonic stem cells that have been differentiated, or converted, into cells called oligodendrocyte progenitors. These are capable of becoming the kind of cells which help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

The surgery was performed by Keck Medicine of USC’s Dr. Charles Liu. In a news release about the procedure, he says improvements of the kind Kris has experienced can make a huge difference in someone’s life:

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Dr. Charles Liu, Keck School of Medicine: Photo courtesy USC

“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels. In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels means the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.”

We blogged about this work as recently as last week, when Asterias announced that the trial had passed two important safety hurdles.  But Kris’ story is the first to suggest this treatment might actually be working.

Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, says:

 “With each patient treated in this clinical trial we learn.  We gain more experience, all of which helps us put into better context the significance of this type of event for all people afflicted with debilitating spinal cord injuries. But let us not lose sight of the individual here.  While each participant in a clinical trial is part of the group, for them success is binary.  They either improve or they do not.  Kris bravely and selflessly volunteered for this clinical trial so that others may benefit from what we learn.  So it is fitting that today we celebrate Kris’ improvements and stop to thank all those participating in clinical trials for their selfless efforts.”

For patient advocates like Roman Reed, this was a moment to celebrate. Roman has been championing stem cell research for years and through his Roman Reed Foundation helped lay the groundwork for the research that led to this clinical trial:

This is clear affirmative affirmation that we are making Medical History!  We were able to give a paralyzed quadriplegic patient back the use of his hands! With only half a clinical dosage. Now this person may hold and grasp his loved ones hands in his own hands because of the actions of our last two decades for medical research for paralysis CURE! CARPE DIEM!”

It’s not unheard of for people with the kind of injury Kris had to make a partial recovery, to regain some use of their arms and hands, so it’s impossible to know right now if the stem cell transplant was the deciding factor.

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Kris at home: photo courtesy USC

Kris’ dad, Rodney, says he doesn’t care how it happened, he’s just delighted it did:

“He’s going to have a life, even if (the progress) stops just this second, and this is what he has, he’s going to have a better life than he would have definitely had before, because there are so many things that this opens up the world for him, he’s going to be able to use his hands.”


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Stem cell transplant offers Jake a glimpse of hope

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Jake Javier surrounded by friends; Photo courtesy Julie Haener KTVU

On Thursday, July 7th, Jake Javier became the latest member of a very select group. Jake underwent a stem cell transplant for a spinal cord injury at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The therapy is part of the CIRM-funded clinical trial run by Asterias Biotherapeutics. For Asterias it meant it had hit a significant milestone (more on that later). But for Jake, it was something far more important. It was the start of a whole new phase in his life.

Jake seriously injured his spinal cord in a freak accident after diving into a swimming pool just one day before he was due to graduate from San Ramon Valley high school. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of the tireless patient advocate and stem cell champion Roman Reed, Jake was able to enroll in the Asterias trial.

astopc1The goal of the trial is to test the safety of transplanting three escalating doses of AST-OPC1 cells. These are a form of cell called oligodendrocyte progenitors, which are capable of becoming several different kinds of brain cells, some of which play a supporting role and help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system – the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

To be eligible, individuals have to have experienced a severe neck injury in the last 30 days, one that has left them with no sensation or movement below the level of their injury, and that means they have typically lost all lower limb function and most hand and arm function.

The first group of three patients was completed in August of last year. This group was primarily to test for safety, to make sure this approach was not going to cause any harm to patients. That’s why the individuals enrolled were given the relatively small dose of 2 million cells. So far none of the patients have experienced any serious side effects, and some have even shown some small improvements.

In contrast, the group Jake is in were given 10 million cells each. Jake was the fifth person treated in this group. That means Asterias can now start assessing the safety data from this group and, if there are no problems, can plan on enrolling people for group 3 in about two months. That group of patients will get 20 million cells.

It’s these two groups, Jakes and group 3, that are getting enough cells that it’s hoped they will see some therapeutic benefits.

In a news release, Steve Cartt, President and CEO of Asterias, said they are encouraged by the progress of the trial so far:

“Successful completion of enrollment and dosing of our first efficacy cohort receiving 10 million cells in our ongoing Phase 1/2a clinical study represents a critically important milestone in our AST-OPC1 clinical program for patients with complete cervical spinal cord injuries. In addition, while it is still very early in the development process and the patient numbers are quite small, we are encouraged by the upper extremity motor function improvements we have observed so far in patients previously enrolled and dosed in the very low dose two million cell cohort that had been designed purely to evaluate safety.”

 

jake and familyJake and his family are well aware that this treatment is not going to be a cure, that he won’t suddenly get up and walk again. But it could help him in other, important ways, such as possibly getting back some ability to move his hands.

The latest news is that Jake is doing well, that he experienced some minor problems after the surgery but is bouncing back and is in good spirits.

Jake’s mother Isabelle said this has been an overwhelming experience for the family, but they are getting through it thanks to the love and support of everyone who hears Jake’s story. She told CIRM:

 “We are all beyond thrilled to have an opportunity of this magnitude. Just the thought of Jake potentially getting the use of his hands back gives him massive hope. Jake has a strong desire to recover to the highest possible level. He is focused and dedicated to this process. You have done well to choose him for your research. He will make you proud.”

He already has.

Jake and Brady gear

New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady signed a ball and jersey for Jake after hearing about the accident


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A Dream made me change my mind. Almost.

Dream Alliance

Dream Alliance: photo courtesy Daily Telegraph, UK

On Friday I was faced with the real possibility that a horse had made an ass out of me.

Over the years we have written many articles about the risks of unproven stem cell therapies, treatments that have not yet been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective. Often we have highlighted the cases of high profile athletes who have undergone stem cell treatments for injuries when there is little evidence that the treatments they are getting work.

Well, on Friday I saw an athlete who bounced back from a potentially career-ending injury to enjoy an amazing career thanks to a stem cell treatment. I wondered if I was going to have to revise my thoughts on this topic. Then my wife pointed out to me that the athlete was a horse.

We had been watching the movie Dark Horse, a truly delightful true story about a group of working class people in a Welsh mining village who bred and raised a horse that went on to great success as a race horse – often beating out thoroughbreds that were worth millions of dollars.

 

At one point the horse, Dream Alliance, suffered an almost fatal injury. Everyone assumed his career was over. But thanks to a stem cell treatment he was able to return to the track and became the first horse to win a major race after undergoing stem cell surgery.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that stem cells can help heal serious injuries in horses, the researchers at UC Davis have been using them to help treat horses for years – with great success. The danger comes in then assuming that just because stem cells work for horses, they’ll work for people. And that if they can cure one kind of injury, why not another.

That thought was driven home to me on Saturday when I was giving a talk to a support group for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a nasty, rapidly progressive disease that attacks the motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, destroying a person’s ability to move, eat, speak or breath.

One person asked about a clinic they had been talking to which claimed it might be able to help them. The clinic takes fat from the person with ALS, isolates the stem cells in the fat and injects it back into the person. The clinic claims it’s been very effective in treating injuries such as torn muscles, and that it also works for other problems like Parkinson’s so it might help someone with ALS.

And that’s the problem. We hear about one success story that seems to prove stem cells can do amazing things, and then we are tempted to hope that if it works for one kind of injury, it might work for another, or even for a neurodegenerative disease.

And hope doesn’t come cheap. The cost of the procedure was almost $10,000.

If you have a disease like ALS for which there is no cure, and where the life expectancy is between two to five years, you can understand why someone would be tempted to try anything, no matter how implausible. What is hard is when you have to tell them that without any proof that it works, and little scientific rational as to why it would work, that it’s hard to recommend they try using their own fat cells to treat their ALS.

At CIRM we are investing more than $56.5 million in 21 different projects targeting ALS.   We are hopeful one of them, Clive Svendsen’s research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center,  will soon get approval from the FDA to start a clinical trial.

Much as we would like to believe in miracles, medical breakthroughs usually only come after years of hard, methodical work. It would be great if injecting your own fat-derived stem cells into your body could cure you of all manner of ailments. But there’s no evidence to suggest it will.

The movie Dark Horse shows that for one horse, for one group of people in a small Welsh mining village, stem cells helped create a happy ending. We are hoping stem cells will one day offer the same sense of hope and possibility for people battling deadly diseases like ALS. But that day is not yet here.

 

 

Patient Advocates find their voice in a different language

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Packed house for stem cell conference in Tokyo – Adrienne Shapiro front row, second from right

One of the many wonderful things about travel is that it opens up your eyes and mind to the fact that, while there are many ways in which people around the world differ from each other, there are also many ways we are all essentially the same.

I was in Japan last week attending the Symposium of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy. The organizers wanted to do something that hadn’t really been done in Japan before, namely engaging Patient Advocates in supporting and advancing stem cell research. They wanted the researchers at the conference to better understand how to connect with patient communities, and the benefits those connections can produce.

Adrienne’s story

To help explain the role of the Patient Advocate they invited me, to talk about our experience at CIRM, and Adrienne Shapiro, from Los Angeles, to come and talk about her experience as a champion of stem cell research for sickle cell disease. Because sickle cell disease affects less than 100,000 people in the US it is classified as a rare disease here. But the numbers affected in Japan are much, much lower so it is considered a really rare disease there. Yet none of that mattered. When Adrienne told her story, the numbers and differences melted away, and what was left was our shared humanity.

Adrienne told the audience that no one chooses to be a Patient Advocate, that it is a role thrust on you by life, by a threat to your health or the health of someone you love. Adrienne explained that she is the fourth generation of women in her family to have a child with sickle cell disease and that she hadn’t been concerned she might pass the trait on to her daughter because a test had shown that her husband didn’t have the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell (to develop the disease an individual has to inherit the genetic mutation from both parents).

But the test was wrong. At nine months Adrienne’s daughter was diagnosed as having sickle cell disease. That’s when Adrienne started fighting. Her first act was to get hospitals to start using a more expensive, but more accurate test to detect if someone carries the genetic trait. She didn’t want anyone else to have their life shaken by a false test result. She won that fight, and hasn’t stopped fighting since.

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Conference brochure

Working together

Adrienne told the audience that patients and researchers need to be partners, because they have shared goals. They both want to see a new treatment, even a cure, for a wide range of deadly diseases. They both want adequate funding for the research. They both want to see the research advance as rapidly as possible.

She explained that patients are not just the recipients of treatments developed in the lab, that they are also people whose lives have been profoundly changed by disease, so they are willing to do everything they can to help the researchers trying to find treatments for their problem.

She talked about Axis Advocacy, the grass-roots organization she helped co-found, and how groups like this can help researchers by educating and raising awareness among the general public about the importance of stem cell research and the need to support it. She talked about the ability of Patient Advocates to do fund raising, or political lobbying, or helping the research team design a patient-friendly clinical trial – one more likely to succeed in recruiting and retaining the patients the trial needs to produce meaningful results, something that is often a real challenge with a rare disease where there are limited numbers of patients to start with.

 

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Adrienne and I being interviewed by a reporter with Japan’s Nikkei News

Preaching the power of the Patient Advocates

I talked to the audience of 500 – a full house to the delight of the organizers – about the role of Patient Advocates at CIRM. I explained how Patient Advocates were instrumental in passing Proposition 71, creating the stem cell institute, and now help shape everything we do from the policies we adopt to the projects we fund and even the way we help researchers design patient-friendly clinical trials. I also talked about our work with Patient Advocates to help us speed up the way the FDA works, to make it easier and faster, but no less safe, to get the most promising stem cell therapies to those in need.

But it was Adrienne’s talk about her personal experience that really captivated the audience. The Japanese researchers seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the power of Patient Advocates to help them in their work. For some in the audience this may have been the first time they had heard from a Patient Advocate, the first time they had considered the advantages in partnering with them.

If Adrienne has anything to do with it, it won’t be the last.

Speaking of the power of the Patient Advocate’s voice, Axis Advocacy just launched its new podcast, appropriately enough it’s called The Power of Voices.

How do you know what patients want if you never even ask them?

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Our mission at CIRM is to accelerate stem treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. But what if those needs are not just unmet, they’re also unknown? What happens when those developing treatments never even bother to ask those they are trying to help if this is what they really need, or want?

The question came up during a panel discussion at a meeting of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network in San Diego earlier this month. David Higgins, a CIRM Board member and a Patient Advocate for Parkinson’s disease, highlighted the problem saying that if you ask most people what they think is the biggest problem for Parkinson’s sufferers, they would probably say the movement disorders such as tremors and muscle rigidity. But David said that if you ask people who have Parkinson’s what their biggest problems are, then movement disorder probably wouldn’t even come in the top five concerns that they really have.

David listed insomnia, severe fatigue, anxiety, and depression as far more pressing and important:

“Researchers study what they know and they look to solve the things they think they can solve, and it is sometimes very different than the things that patients would like them to solve to ease their concerns.”

That sparked a fascinating discussion about the gap between what researchers and scientists sometimes think they should be doing, the kinds of treatments they should be trying to develop, and what the people who have those conditions really want.

David Parry, who is with GlaxoSmithKline and worked in drug development and discovery for most of his career, said:

“If I told you how many times I sat in meetings with my medical discovery group and talked about what our targets should be then we’d be here all night. We focus on what we know, what we think we can fix and what will work, when maybe we need to be more mindful of what could really make a difference in the life of patients.”

Alpha clinic panelAlpha Stem Cell Clinics Network panel discussion: Left David Higgins, David Parry, Catriona Jamieson, John Zaia, John Adams

Clearly there is a gap between what we think we can fix and what we should try and fix, and the best way to close that gap is to have a conversation.

Patients and Patient Advocates need to speak up and tell researchers what their main concerns and problems are, to help the scientists understand that while they would dearly love something that saves their life, they would also appreciate something that helps improve the quality of their lives.

Researchers too need to take a step back and not just get caught up in the search for an answer to a scientific or medical puzzle, without first asking “is this a puzzle that people want solved?”

At CIRM we work hard to make sure the voices of the patients and Patient Advocates are heard at every level of the work we do; from deciding what to fund to how to design a clinical trial involving our funding. But clearly it’s important that those voices be heard at a much earlier stage, to help shape the direction the research takes long before it comes to us for funding.

Breaking down barriers

For too long there has been a communications barrier between researchers and patients. This is not something that was deliberately constructed, it is something that simply evolved over time. Now it’s time to break down that barrier, and make sure both groups are talking to each other.

When it comes to developing treatments for deadly diseases and disorders, patients and researchers should think of themselves as partners. Researchers put their minds to work developing these treatments. Patients put their bodies on the line testing them.

Without the research there is no hope. Without the patients there is no proof. So, let’s start talking to each other.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how we can get this conversation started we would love to hear from you.

Rare Disease Day, a chance to raise awareness and hope.

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Battling a deadly disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s is difficult; but battling a rare and deadly disease is doubly so. At least with common diseases there is a lot of research seeking to develop new treatments. With rare diseases there is often very little research, and so there are fewer options for treatment. Even just getting a diagnosis can be hard because most doctors may never have heard about, let alone seen, a case of a disease that only affects a few thousand individuals.

That’s why the last day of February, every year, has been designated Rare Disease Day.  It’s a time to raise awareness amongst the public, researchers, health  professionals and policy makers about the impact these diseases have on the lives of those affected by them. This means not just the individual with the problem, but their family and friends too.

There are nearly 7,000 diseases in the U.S. that are considered rare, meaning they affect fewer than 200,000 people at any given time.

No numbers no money

The reason why so many of these diseases have so few treatment options is obvious. With diseases that affect large numbers of people a new treatment or cure stands to make the company behind it a lot of money. With diseases that affect very small numbers of people the chances of seeing any return on investment are equally small.

Fortunately at CIRM we don’t have to worry about making a profit, all we are concerned with is accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. And in the case of people with rare diseases, those needs are almost invariably unmet.

That’s why over the years we have invested heavily in diseases that are often overlooked because they affect relatively small numbers of people. In fact right now we are funding clinical trials in several of these including sickle cell anemia, retinitis pigmentosa and chronic granulomatous disease. We are also funding work in conditions like Huntington’s disease, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and SCID or “bubble baby” disease.

Focus on the people

As in everything we do our involvement is not just about funding research – important as that is – it’s also about engaging with the people most affected by these diseases, the patient advocate community. Patient advocates help us in several ways:

  • Collaborating with us and other key stakeholders to try and change the way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works. Our goal is to create an easier and faster, but no less safe, method of approving the most promising stem cell therapies for clinical trial. With so few available treatments for rare diseases having a smoother route to a clinical trial will benefit these communities.
  • Spreading the word to researchers and companies about CIRM 2.0, our new, faster and more streamlined funding opportunities to help us move the most promising therapies along as fast as possible. The good news is that this means anyone, anywhere can apply for funding. We don’t care how many people are affected by a disease, we only care about the quality of the proposed research project that could help them.
  • Recruiting Patient Advocates to our Clinical Advisory Panels (CAPs), teams that we assign to each project in a clinical trial to help guide and inform the researchers at every stage of their work. This not only gives each project the best possible chance of succeeding but it also helps the team stay focused on the mission, of saving, and changing, people’s lives.
  • Helping us recruit patients for clinical trials. The inability to recruit and retain enough patients to meet a project’s enrollment requirements is one of the biggest reasons many clinical trials fail. This is particularly problematic for rare diseases. By using Patient Advocates to increase our ability to enroll and retain patients we will increase the likelihood a clinical trial is able to succeed.

Organizing to fight back

There are some great organizations supporting and advocating on behalf of families affected by rare diseases, such as the EveryLife Foundation  and the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD).  They are working hard to raise awareness about these diseases, to get funding to do research, and to clear away some of the regulatory hurdles researchers face in being able to move the most promising therapies out of the lab and into clinical trials where they can be tested on people.

For the individuals and families affected by conditions like beta thalassemia and muscular dystrophy – potentially fatal genetic disorders – every day is Rare Disease Day. They live with the reality of these problems every single day. That’s why we are committed to working hard every single day, to find a treatment that can help them and their loved ones.