Last week, I attended the first MS Chariot meeting at St Barts. Around the table were about twenty of us - mostly neurologists from the UK and abroad, health researchers, an MS Society representative and a few of us MSers - all there to discuss the possibilities, funding, treatments and yes - frustrations - of those with advanced MS who have traditionally been overlooked in the quest for disease modifying drugs.
This was made all the more apparent at the start of the day when Craig Milverton sat down at a piano and began playing a handful of songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and other jazz greats.
Playing is the key word here.
You see in 2010, the very year Milverton was named Jazz Pianist of the Year, he was diagnosed with PPMS. With each passing month, his symptoms got worse. His walking deteriorated, his fingers became more and more numb and he began missing notes on the piano. His career as a pianist was over, he thought.
Then in 2012 he was able to get on ocrelizumab - an experimental drug currently being assessed for drug licensing by the EMA for RRMS and PPMS. Almost immediately after his first infusion he started to feel better. Since then, his symptoms have stabilised and he has been able to continue playing across the country.
Craig is one of the lucky ones. Until very recently, it was thought that a person with advanced MS - with an EDSS score above 5.5 and requiring a walking aid - would not benefit from a disease modifying treatment (DMT). It was not quite “Diagnosis and Adios,” but pretty close.
Why? Selective interpretation of trial data, too much focus on EDSS scores as a key outcome, a belief immunotherapy did not work “beyond the wheelchair,” regulatory process, cost and numbers. Advanced MS is uncommon. Only 10-15% of MSers are initially diagnosed with it.
Such a belief also meant that for those with advanced MS preserving upper limb function was not seen as a priority. But if you think about it, what keeps pwMS independent is their arms and hands. When you lose the ability to walk - that is bad enough. But at least with your hands, you are able to get into your wheelchair, dress yourself, clean your teeth, feed yourself, make a telephone call, use a keyboard, self-catheterize, work a remote control… Lose that and your quality of life plummets.
Thankfully this mindset is starting to change. “At the moment, there are no established options for advanced MS, but emerging therapies are offering hope,” said Cris Constantinescu, a neurologist from Nottingham University, to the group.
For Dr. Klaus Schmierer, a neurologist at St Barts who organised the forum, real promise lies in cladribine, a drug traditionally used for the past 25 years to treat hairy cell leukemia, but which has also proved to be highly effective in treating RRMS. As an MS drug, it has many advantages. It is safe, easy to use, convenient - it is an injectable but also comes in tablet form - and cheap as it is a generic drug.
Intriguingly, there is also evidence, dating from the early 1990’s, that cladribine may also slow advanced MS. At the moment, about one hundred patients at the Royal London Hospital with advanced MS - who have failed other therapies - are using it and finding it effective. “It meets the needs of some patients for whom we have little to offer,” says Schmierer. But definitive trials are lacking, a source of frustration for Schmierer, who is currently looking for funding.
Another MS drug which offers hope is rituximab, an injectable, which works in a similar fashion to ocrelizumab. Though the NHS has declined to fund rituximab for the treatment of MS in the UK - citing insufficient trial results - Swedish neurologists have been using the drug for RRMS and advanced MS for more than a decade. “It fulfilled an unmet need and there were fewer options available for advanced MS,” said Frederik Piehl, a neurologist from the Karolinska Institute. In Sweden, he said rituximab has been found to have been highly effective and well tolerated. However in the UK, neurologists are not allowed to prescribe it for their patients.
By the end of the day, it had become apparent that there were no one-off easy answers regarding treatment options for those with advanced MS. The challenging nature of treating MS, plus wrangles over drug licensing, potential funding and drug company priorities ensures this However there was a feeling that, at least, attention is finally being focused on those with advanced MS who might have been previously ignored. Studies have shown - and as Craig Milverton apply demonstrated - advanced MS is modifiable. Now it is key to get the rest of the community on board.
As Aisling McMahon, head of clinical research at the MS Society, said: “We are very aware that progressive MS is the greatest area of unmet need.”