Episode 72 with Mr. Nathaniel Lizak on the MS disease course
A fundamental question for people with MS is: What will happen to me? A new study finds a highly variable disease trajectory in people with moderate and advanced MS. The past doesn't seem to predict the future. It adds up to hope that outcomes can be improved, no matter what stage of disease, says medical student Nathaniel Lizak on his preliminary findings.
Links to articles and other resources mentioned in Episode 72:
- MSDF Data Visualization: Map of MS Prevalence
- MSDF Job Listings
- ACTRIMS 2016 Forum, Emerging Concepts in MS session, Lizak abstract
- MS Base, an international database dedicated to sharing, tracking and evaluating outcomes data in multiple sclerosis
- Full transcript below
Note: Each podcast includes a brief summary of recent articles and updates posted to MSDF, as well as an interview with a thought leader or newsmaker in MS and related demyelinating diseases. Listen to it here. Alternatively, you may subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or your favorite podcast app. In iTunes, for example, click File/Subscribe to Podcast and then enter this URL: http://msdiscovery.libsyn.com/rss
The 2015-16 series of MS podcasts is supported in part by a generous grant from Sanofi Genzyme. The content remains the sole responsibility of the Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Forum, an independent non-profit news organization.
Host — Dan Keller
Hello, and welcome to Episode Seventy-two of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery, the podcast of the MS Discovery Forum. I’m Dan Keller.
Today's interview features Nathaniel Lizak, a young Australian investigator from the University of Melbourne who gave the first talk at the recent meeting in New Orleans of the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis, or ACTRIMS. Mr. Lizak discusses new findings showing that moderately advanced and advanced multiple sclerosis are more unpredictable than anyone knew, but worsening disability may be slowed by highly effective therapies.
But first, let’s look at new content on MSDiscovery.org.
Our latest data visualization shows statistical snapshots of MS worldwide. Survey data from the MS International Federation show that, as of 2013, the estimated number of people in the world with MS increased to 2.3 million, or about 33 people with MS for every 100,000 people. But MS rates and access to care vary widely from country to country, as you can see from the data visualization.
In a new job posting, the Stanford-affiliated Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Department of Neurology seeks a general neurologist. Subspecialty training in MS, movement disorders, or vascular neurology is preferred. You can post your job at MSDF at no charge to reach researchers and clinicians specializing in MS and related demyelinating disorders.
And now to our interview. Australian medical student, Nathaniel Lizak, and his academic mentors took a second look at how disease progresses in people with moderate and advanced MS and what can be done about it. Researchers are looking for better measures of disability, but the most common one is the Expanded Disability Status Scale or EDSS for short. Lizak and colleagues looked at worsening disease from several starting points, using an international registry known as MSBase that tracks medical record data on nearly 38,000 people with MS. They divided people in three epochs ranging from EDSS 3.0 (where people are moderately disabled but are fully ambulatory) to EDSS 6.0 and higher (where people need assistance to walk short distances). An older study suggested a steady worsening of disease after EDSS 3.0, which Lizak and co-workers questioned. Executive editor, Carol Cruzan Morton, spoke with him about their findings.
Interviewer – Carol Cruzan Morton
We are here at the ACTRIMS meeting in New Orleans, and you opened the conference with a really interesting paper. I wanted you to explain a little bit about what you were asking and why. What area of MS, what questions you are addressing?
Interviewee – Nathaniel Lizak
So we did this work under the MSBase group, which is an MS-based cohorts; it is an international really large study that has data from over 30,000 patients worldwide. We have access to all of their data, and we really thank our contributors throughout the world who have provided this.
We decided – because we have so much power with so many numbers and so much data from patients – to look at the latest stages of multiple sclerosis which, so far, haven't really been that well explored.
There have been three studies in the past which looked at disability and how it progresses in what they have called the moderately advanced stage of multiple sclerosis (Confavreux et al., 2003, Leray et al., 2010, Scalfari et al, 2010. So yeah, we looked at disability accumulation in the later stage of multiple sclerosis moderately advanced, which is defined before as between the EDSS steps of 3.0 or 4.0 and 6.0, and we wanted to look at what predicts how the disability accumulates, because a lot of the previous studies didn't really suggest anything really changes disability.
There is this notion amongst doctors that once it hits these thresholds the trajectory is set, and there is nothing you can do to help patients. We didn't believe that. We were hoping there was something you can still do for patients, even once they have already accumulated substantial amounts of disability.
We set this up to look at just how much variability there is in these later stages of disease and what we can do to take it from going really fast to going really slow, to preventing patients from getting even worse.
We used our cohorts, ran lots of statistics, and we found some very interesting results. The first is that this late stage of disease is quite independent from what happens before. How many relapses people have early in the disease, how fast they got to the early disability landmarks, how fast they accumulated disability, if they were on therapy in the past—all of those things don't really seem to impact what happens later on in the disease. That is what we call the amnesic disease phenomenon. That is something that has already been explored in the past. We kind of confirmed that and saw that, that happens at lots of stages in multiple sclerosis.
What is more interesting, though, is that we still found that patients have a lot of variability in what happens to them, even after they have accumulated substantial disability. So in technical terms, after EDSS 3.0, 4.0, and 6.0, there is still a lot of variability in what happens to patients after they have reached these steps, after they have already obtained disability. That suggestion that after the threshold the disease is set doesn't seem to be at all the case. That is all we observed in our patients.
We had over 3,400 patients— we had 3,415 patients exactly. So it is quite I think, generalizable, our results. There is a lot of variation in what will happen at these later stages of disease.
You can't predict what happens next. And it is different.
It is different for everyone. It is independent of what happened before, and almost nothing predicts what is going to happen next. The only things that we found which did predict such as how does disability progress in these later stages, the first one was how many relapses they are having now. Not before, not early in the disease, but how many relapses are they now having per year at these later stages?
We found that more relapses later in the disease still contribute to disability. That wasn't something that the other studies had actually shown, and I think that is to do with their methodology more than anything else. I think we are confirming that relapses are still important, inflammation is still important, we still need to treat it, no matter how far along the disability line the patients are. The relapse is still a problem.
A more exciting thing that we found was that the immunomodulatory medications that the disease modifying therapies, the higher efficacies ones, the new medications, the longer patients are on those in the later stages of disease—so again, after those landmarks, after EDSS 3.0, 4.0, and 6.0—he longer patients are on those after they have gone into that disability the lower their likelihood of progressing even further to EDSS 6.0 and 6.5, which is mobility issues needing unilateral assistance or a walking stick, EDSS 6.0 or bilateral walking assistance EDSS 6.5. So those are pretty, obviously, important to patients in being able to move around without needing any aid.
We found that we can prevent patients from getting to these later disability stages with longer time on disease therapies later on in the disease. So the conclusion we got from this is patients should continue being treated later in multiple sclerosis. Of course, it's always a risk/benefit calculation. You always need to take the side effects into consideration and look at the patient that you are seeing. It is not a blanket rule, but there are countries in the world where it's by policy you can't give therapies later on in disease after EDSS 4.0.
New Zealand is one example. In other places in the world, it is just practice to stop giving treatments later in multiple sclerosis, and we are suggesting no there still is a benefit and you should be weighing that up when considering whether or not to continue patients on therapy, whether to start them on stronger therapies. There is evidence that we can still slow down how the disability will accumulate. That was our main message. We were a bit surprised to find out it was not what we were expecting, but we are very happy that we found such results.
In your study, what drugs were categories as the high efficacy?
I don't remember exactly every single drug, but we just put into two groups. The low efficacy being primarily the initial very first-line drugs, so interferon, glatiramer acetate, and teriflunomide; everything else categorizes as high-efficacy therapy, so natalizumab, fingolimod, alemtuzumab, dimethyl fumarate, cladribine, mitoxantrone, I might be missing a few. By no means are we saying that one therapy is better than another. We're just looking at the class effect of the really strong medications. We don't yet have the power to say this is the best medication after EDSS 6.0, this is the best medication after EDSS 4.0, or don't go on that one. We're just trying to say that the stronger perhaps second-line therapies often used second-line do have a better effect in this later period of disease, and doctors should be considering that when deciding what treatments their patients should go on, and patients should obviously be made aware of that as well.
The idea that things that happen before don't affect the later stages seems on the surface to be at odds with the idea that progressive disease starts early, like treat early.
…to try to treat disease as early as possible. I don't think it is at odds. There's been a lot of work, so far, to say that the earlier you treat your patients the better. We agree with all of that. We are not saying treating later is any better. Probably believe that treating earlier is better, but what we are saying is: a) continue treating, and don't stop treating. I completely agree that all of the patients that we found that after EDSS 3.0, 4.0, and 6.0 improved with more therapy after those landmarks, still probably did better earlier on in their phase of disease with therapy then. But I guess what we saw is the therapy they had earlier in disease won't make an impact now. You need to continue treating these patients for them to have an improvement.
We still absolutely encourage the earlier treatment, the better. That evidence is beyond doubt in multiple sclerosis. We are definitely not challenging that. We completely agree with that. Our evidence just goes and takes it one step further of, the earlier the better, but it is not too late.
Now you are doing this study in the context of a clinical practice. How has that changed – or has it changed – how people with MS are treated in the decision making?
The thing is, first of all, I am a medical student, so I don't make any of the decisions. Secondly, where we are based in Melbourne, Australia, there is already a tendency to treat patients later on in disease. Obviously we haven't published the results yet, so we haven't seen how much of an affect it will have worldwide. Perhaps now we will begin to start changing things. But in Australia where nothing was studied, no one was surprised to find that this was the case. All the doctors there already treat their patients later on in the disease. So it just confirmed that what they are doing is correct. No one has yet drastically changed how they are treating patients. We hope though that, say countries like New Zealand whereby policy after a certain EDSS score, after EDSS 4.0, after moderate disability has been accumulated, you can't put patients on disease-modifying therapy anymore—we hope that is where we will have the biggest impact.
When you gave your talk, you talked about the earlier study. There wasn’t an appreciation for the variability. How did you come to ask that question in the first place?
I have to give credit to my supervisor, as well as the whole MS based team that was behind this study, and obviously they conceptualized it a lot more than I: Dr. Thomas Kalincik and Helmut Butzkueven, in particular. But a lot of doctors, particularly our team, are not happy with that graph. Which it looks like everyone after EDSS 3.0 has the same trajectory. We looked at this, and we thought we wanted to do a study to prove this wrong. We didn't know exactly what we were going to find. We actually proved that what they first suggested of disease being independent to be quite correct. But they just missed the variance in the second half. It is independent, but it is still really variable.
We looked at the graphs carefully, and we looked at the study carefully, and we made the note of they only have a mean value on that top half, they don't show how much variability there may or may not be in disease. We got confused. We said it is unlikely that patients have no variability at all after EDSS 3.0, and we decided not only are we going to look at what predicts the later disease, but we need to know just how variable is this disease this late, and we found that it is extremely variable. After EDSS 6.0, patients might go straight through to worse disability, and many will improve, and many will stay stable for many years. We were just unhappy with the message that the graph gave. Then we tried to scrutinize exactly where can we change this message, where can we improve this.
That’s great. What questions are your colleagues asking you here about the study?
I have had a lot of questions about this study, some more helpful than others. A lot of people have asked how will this change management? And I think we have just spoken a little bit about that. I am asked, as well, how do you tell patients that we can no longer predict their disease? We used to think that we could and now we just outright can't predict their disease and that is something that is going to be difficult to tell the patients. I think you need to frame it differently. It is not we can't predict how your disease is going to go, it is, we have hope for making it better. You might have been doing not so well up until now, but we still have hope to continue fighting. We haven't given up yet. And I think that is what we need to be framing it as. That is one of the questions I have gotten the most.
A lot of people have asked about why we chose certain therapies, and there is very little evidence about which therapy is high and which therapy is low. We just used the available studies as well as the clinical experience and just compared how much they reduced relapse rates and so on. It was partly based on intuition and observation. It could be the case that some therapies should have been classified differently to what we did, but it is very hard to tell at this stage.
Even then, even looking at the list, you should be mindful that a therapy that we classified as high efficacy might have actually been bringing that group down. And maybe should have been a low efficacy therapy, and maybe a low efficacy therapy was the only one working in that group, and it should have been in the high efficacy group. So obviously, be very careful when you look at that.
At that strata, it is not meant to be telling anyone I should be on that drug or I shouldn't be on that drug. It is just meant to be saying that strong medications are better in this stage, but the decision of the medication should be a decision made entirely by the patient and their doctor, and it should only be used to influence and it shouldn't be taken any more than that.
Is rituximab in your …. I was going to say before a B cell therapy.
I don't think we have many patients on rituximab, but we would have had quite a few. Yes, because it was used quite extensively. [Editor's note: See slide below for therapies designated high and low efficacy in the study.]
Thanks. Is there anything else that I haven't asked or that you wanted to add?
Rituximab was in the high efficacy group. I should mention that. Yes. Thank you for the fantastic opportunity to showcase the work we have been doing. I obviously have to give credit to everyone at MSBase who conceptualized and gave patients the study. We couldn't have done it without the help of our collaborators worldwide.
Thank you for listening to Episode Seventy-two of Multiple Sclerosis Discovery. This podcast was produced by the MS Discovery Forum, MSDF, the premier source of independent news and information on MS research. MSDF’s executive editor is Carol Cruzan Morton. The data visualization was developed by Jean Mercier of Khawai Data Visualization at Khawai.com. Msdiscovery.org is part of the nonprofit Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis. Robert McBurney is our President and CEO, and Hollie Schmidt is Vice President of Scientific Operations.
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For Multiple Sclerosis Discovery, I'm Dan Keller.