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Patient communities

Connecting with Patients is the Reward

As a research scientist, immunologist Huub Kreuwel, PhD never really worked with patients. He spent most of his time in an academic lab, trying to understand the basic biology of certain diseases and identifying molecules that could serve as targets for new therapies. He never got to see what happened in the later stages of drug development—that part where patients got better because of the discoveries he’d made.

When he left academia to serve as medical science liaison at Johnson and Johnson, however, he discovered a whole new experience. Now, years later, as Vice President for Scientific and Medical Affairs in the United States for Octapharma, talking to patients and providers about the plasma-based products his company produces is the best part of his job.

“When I came out of academia, I found it was very satisfying to actually talk to a patient who had tried our drug and had good results,” he says. “As an immunologist, it made sense to work on a lot of these rare diseases like primary immune deficiency and dermatomyositis. And it’s gotten more and more interesting over the years.”

Working in the medical affairs department also offers the opportunity to get involved with a wide variety of projects. Huub and his team work with regulatory agencies when the company is seeking approval for new products. They help set up clinical trials to test new therapies and answer physicians’ questions about how those therapies work. Best of all, he meets the people who benefit from Octapharma’s treatments, such as immune globulin (IG) therapies, and helps them enroll as research subjects in the company’s clinical trials.

Recently, the company completed a trial testing intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy in patients with dermatomyositis (DM). While the results have not yet been made public, Huub says the trial did meet its primary endpoints, so it looks very promising that Octagam 10% will eventually become one of the few FDA-approved treatments for this disabling disease that affects the skin and muscles.

Part of what made this trial so successful was the feedback Huub and his team received from patients. In the process of developing the clinical trial, they worked with patient organizations, including The Myositis Association and Myositis Support and Understanding, to understand how patients experienced the disease so they could improve the study protocol and to help recruit participants for the trial.

“We work on a lot of orphan drugs,” Huub says. “And there aren’t that many patients sometimes, so we need everybody to help us to finish these trials. It worked quite well in the DM trial. Those were very productive relationships.”

The success Octapharma had with this phase III clinical trial with DM will also pave the way for future clinical trials for this indication. When rare diseases have few previous clinical trials, researchers often fumble to find tests that will tell them whether a particular drug is working or not. Octapharma’s trial in DM not only proved that the treatment was effective, it also showed that their measures of effectiveness worked in this patient population.

Huub is now developing protocols to test Octapharma products with other diseases. Among these are pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS for short—a disease in which psychiatric symptoms such as obsessive-compulsive disorder appear suddenly after a strep infection) and secondary immune deficiency (SID—a problem that occurs when immune system deficiencies occur because of something other than genetics, such as HIV or chemotherapy).

As they did with the DM study, he and his team are talking to patients to get input that will improve these studies. One way they do this is by recruiting an advisory board of about a dozen patients who spend the day with company representatives sharing their experiences and suggestions. These open-ended discussions provide insights into all manner of ideas: how to better explain data, ideas for new trials, how patients need to be supported during a trial, and more.

“Those discussions are really good for the company, and usually they’re very productive,” Huub says. “Often patients have ideas for new products or practical solutions that might make our products better. And a lot of times it actually has led to either different products or different marketing material or revamping our website or providing patient education sessions.”

These days the thing that has captured Huub’s interest is COVID-19. Healthcare providers on the front lines of the pandemic are finding success in treating the virus with IG. In fact, recent events have made Octapharma a leader in exploring new therapies for COVID-19.

The company is currently supporting two investigator-initiated projects—one testing IVIG as a treatment for COVID-related respiratory failure, the other using IVIG and steroids to treat COVID-19 patients who are developing heart problems. Octapharma is also conducting their own phase III clinical trial to see if high-dose IVIG can be used to improve severe COVID-19 symptoms. Initial results from the investigator-initiated study with COVID-related respiratory failure are very promising.

“Of course COVID is horrible,” Huub says. “But it also became an opportunity for us to delve deeper into IVIG and how it can potentially work in that disease. It’s very satisfying for me personally and for my team to try and come up with other drugs that could help COVID. So overall, it’s been a very interesting ride.”

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Advocacy CSI Pharmacy stories

It’s Our Turn

As a member of CSI Pharmacy’s patient advocacy team, it’s my job to create materials for our campaign to increase plasma donations. We’re working to encourage people, especially family members and friends of those who rely on immune globulin therapy, to roll up their sleeves and give back by giving their plasma.

The coronavirus crisis has slowed donations of this life-saving serum from which immune globulin (IG) therapies are made. Together with the Immune Globulin National Society (IgNS), CSI Pharmacy is supporting the #ItsMyTurn campaign, encouraging those of us who are not on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 to consider this opportunity to be a hero in a different way.

While I sat safely socially isolating in my home, organizing webinars, writing patient stories, and creating social media memes, this voice kept nagging at the back of my head: You could donate, it said.

I could, I thought. But the closest plasma donation center is an hour away from where I live in Central Virginia. But it would take me half the day to donate. But I’d have to do it on a regular basis; a one-time shot won’t work.

Still, I just couldn’t sit here urging others to do this important work if I weren’t willing to get off my “buts” and do my part too. I work remotely all the time anyway, and I could bring my laptop and check social media while I donated. I could commit to donating once a week. So I made an appointment and started donating.

But I’m not the only member of the CSI Pharmacy staff getting out of the workplace to donate plasma. Our leadership is making this a movement by encouraging all employees to become plasma donor heroes. And CSI Pharmacy CEO James Sheets is leading the way to the donation center.

“This is an opportunity for us to give back to our community of patients who depend on this life-saving therapy,” James says. “Our patients are our family, and we can’t let them down. We have to do what we can to be sure they can get the treatments they need.”

For my colleagues who work at the pharmacy headquarters in Wake Village, Texas, there is a certified plasma donation center just three miles away in Texarkana. CSI Pharmacy team members are given time to donate during working hours. Those who donate receive a special #ItsMyTurn t-shirt. James has even created a contest to encourage employees to make donating a routine part of their week.

“Our team members are motivated to this cause, because they’re so connected to our patients and their therapies,” James says. “They know how challenging it can be for folks when IG products are in short supply.”

With seven donations under his belt so far, delivery technician Justin McNeill is leading in donations among the CSI Pharmacy employees. He’s grateful for the time to give, but for him it’s not really about the contest or the modest payment he receives as a donor. 

“If there’s a shortage on our IG products, our patients aren’t going to get the medicine they need,” Justin says. “I figure I’ve got it to give, so I might as well.”

Roxanne Ward, CSI Pharmacy’s Regional Nursing Supervisor in Little Rock, Arkansas got three of her nurses together to make an event of their trip to the plasma donation center. Knowing that plasma donations are down right now is what made her want to take this extra step for her patients.

“I treat so many people who rely on this,” she says. “I felt like donating is the least I can do to help the people I care for.”

Not everyone at CSI Pharmacy will qualify to donate plasma, though. Eligibility guidelines are strict, so those with certain medical conditions, those who take certain medications, or those who may have been exposed certain blood-borne pathogens won’t be able to give. These team members can still participate in our program, however, by recruiting someone else to donate in their place.

“I really wanted to be a plasma donor because it’s so important that we have enough plasma for those who need these therapies,” says VP of Patient Advocacy and Provider Relations Michelle Vogel. “Unfortunately, I’ve used blood products (platelets) in the last year, so I don’t qualify. So I asked my family to help.”

Michelle’s brother-in-law, who was among the four members of her family to volunteer, knows intimately how important IG therapies can be. His mother has myasthenia gravis and has been treated for many years with IVIG.

“We’re really proud of the response from our team members,” James says. “It’s an important effort, and we’d like to invite other businesses and organizations to join this effort to short-circuit an IG shortage by encouraging their employees to donate plasma. Together we can make a difference.”

#ItsMyTurn

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Advocacy Health Information

What’s the Difference?

Plasma donations are down in recent months. Fewer donations now means a possible shortage of plasma products, such as IVIG, within the coming year. Becoming a plasma donor is one way those of us who are not on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 can bring some good into the world.

But there are significant differences between donating plasma and donating blood. Most significantly, plasma donated at a blood bank or Red Cross facility will not be used to create immune globulin.

Here is an outline of other differences:

What’s the difference between donating blood vs. plasma?

Plasma Blood
Allowable frequency Twice a week with two days in between Once every 56 days
Donations needed to qualify At least two within a six-month period; prefer regular, ongoing donations One donation qualifies
Time it takes to donate 1.5 to 2 hours first donation; less than 1 hour for subsequent Less than 1 hour
Uses To produce life-saving therapies such as immune globulins, clotting factors, and albumin Primarily for transfusions in local hospitals
Donations needed to produce IVIG 250 to treat one autoimmune patient for one year NA – Blood and plasma donations at blood banks and hospitals are not used to make IVIG
Where can you donate? IPPQ-Certified plasma donation center specific to your location  https://www.donatingplasma.org/donation/find-a-donor-center Any AABB-accredited blood donation site http://www.aabb.org/tm/donation/Pages/Blood-Bank-Locator.aspx
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Patient stories

Stay Home

When Katherine Holt hears about people who are eager to end pandemic precautions she is outraged. Katherine is among those who are at highest risk from COVID-19 infection, not just because of her age: 76. She has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease that makes it hard for her to walk because of damage to the nerves in her legs.

For those like Katherine who live with autoimmune diseases or other chronic illnesses that put them at risk, one of their greatest fears is that people will start to relax coronavirus restrictions like social distancing and gathering in groups. They’re afraid this will increase COVID-19 cases and that vulnerable people like themselves will get sick.

“I just want to jump through the TV when I see people saying we don’t need to stay home,” she says. “It’s not time to lighten up, because it’s just going to make this pandemic longer, and more people will die.”

Katherine knows what she’s talking about. Until she retired, she worked most of her life as a nurse. She also started her career in the US Air Force. Between the two, she still feels a great deal of respect for authority and duty—an authority based on science and a duty to keep people healthy.

So Katherine is sticking to stay-at-home orders. She lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas with her sister Gloria and their four-legged family: four cats and two dogs. Katherine is grateful that her sister is so strict about making sure she is not exposed to coronavirus or other infections.

“In the beginning, my sister and I—she’s 67—looked at each other and we decided between the two of us I was the one at highest risk since I have CIDP,” Katherine says.

Gloria orders ahead and uses drive-through services at the grocery store and pharmacy. Anything that comes into the house sits in the garage for several hours before being brought inside. Then Gloria pulls on gloves and wipes everything down with alcohol or bleach before placing it in the pantry or refrigerator. In a fallback from Katherine’s days as a nurse, they even have a transition area between the outside (dirty) and the inside (clean) where they do the disinfecting.

Katherine had two doctor appointments scheduled during April, one with her PCP, the other with her neurologist. Both were routine checkups, and she was feeling fine, so she canceled them. She will call if she needs medication refills and reschedule when the pandemic precautions are lifted.

One thing she has not canceled is her IVIG therapy. She’s been receiving monthly treatments since 2008 and getting her infusions at home for about four years now. It’s the main thing that keeps her able to walk.

Katherine’s first infusions were done in a hospital. “I had to be there at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I was there all day. I got back home about six or seven at night, because they were giving it to me really slowly and checking all the vital signs and everything very frequently.”

When the hospital canceled her infusions several times in a row, she was getting a little desperate. She happened to have an appointment with her neurologist shortly after a representative from CSI Pharmacy had stopped by, talking about home infusion. The doctor put in the order, and three days later—on a weekend—Katherine was getting her infusion at home. Now with social distancing, home infusion makes even more sense.

“I think home infusion is the way to go,” she says. “It’s everything you could want. They made it all really easy. And I enjoy when they come, because finally I have another nurse to talk to.”

Ever the nurse, however, Katherine wants to educate the public about what it means to people like her for the country to flatten the curve.

“I just wish I could help other people understand how important it is to stay at home,” she says. “I’m praying people will see reason. If they draw on their good conscience, hopefully they’ll be able to say, oh, maybe we shouldn’t go back to business as usual just now.”