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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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Patient stories

When You Need a Little Help from Your Friends

Madison Davis had been planning her career in the military since she was seven or eight years old. Living near the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, she joined the Naval Sea Cadets and was intent on moving up through the ranks. She strategized her high school resume to help her get accepted into the Coast Guard Academy, as a soccer player, if possible.

“She was obsessed with the Naval Academy,” says her mom, Christine Davis. “She always wanted to visit there and wear the uniform and work on advancing her ranks. She was a big creator, too, a lego girl, up until she was 13 or so. She always talked about wanting to work on Lear Jets, fixing planes. She always knew what she wanted to do, and she was excited.”

In May 2017, however, gazing down at her daughter lying limply in a hospital bed as doctors gave their diagnosis, a strange, rare disease that seven weeks earlier had weakened Maddie’s muscles, given her a rash over large portions of her body, and paralyzed her into the worst pain she’d ever experienced, Chris cried. Not only was her daughter suffering, but she knew all Maddie’s dreams had just been evaporated by an autoimmune disease they couldn’t even pronounce: juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM).

“I was so numb to everything in the hospital. It really didn’t hit me,” Maddie says. “I wasn’t actually facing all these things I had just lost. I was just on to the next thing. Like, okay, so what do I do now? What schools do I apply to now? I didn’t really give myself a lot of time to deal with it in the moment. And believe it or not, I felt like I was handling everything very well.”

The next few years were difficult for Maddie. She is fortunate that she lives near one of the world’s leading Myositis Centers at Johns Hopkins University, so the medical treatment she received, including prednisone, methotrexate, and intravenous venous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy, was excellent and effective. Her mental health, however, was a different story.

Maddie missed out on much of the excitement of her senior year of high school because she was too weak to participate in many of the activities. Not only was her athletic strength gone, but the prednisone, a steroid medication, made her gain weight and gave her what she calls “’roid rage,” making her emotionally erratic. She lost friendships, because she missed a lot of school and couldn’t go out on weekends, and her friends just didn’t understand why she was behaving so strangely.

“She suffered a lot in many different ways,” Chris says. “We were just trying to survive it every day and trying to seek answers to make it better.”

Maddie and Chris did find answers, mostly from others who live with rare diseases and know what Maddie was going through. On her first outing after spending three weeks in the hospital followed by two weeks in rehab to relearn how to walk, Maddie and Chris attended a local support group meeting of The Myositis Association (TMA). The speakers at that meeting happened to be three members of the CSI Pharmacy team, talking about immune globulin (IG) therapy and home infusion.

During the presentation, Brittany Isaacs, CSI Pharmacy’s Senior Director of Nursing, talked about her own journey with myasthenia gravis—another rare autoimmune disease—and IG therapy. In her talk, she described how her disease had ended her career as a Navy nurse, and how hard that was to deal with.

Maddie remembers glancing at her mother and whispering, incredulous, “Did she just say she was in the Navy?”

After the talk, Maddie and Chris approached Brittany and shared Maddie’s similar regrets about losing her own dream career in the military. After that, Brittany not only became a good friend, she also became her home infusion nurse, allowing Maddie to receive her IVIG treatments at home rather than in the hospital infusion center. Later, when Maddie went off to York College of Pennsylvania, Brittany helped her learn how to give her own IG treatments subcutaneously (SCIG, under the skin, rather than in the vein).

The Davises also found out about Cure JM Foundation, a group more focused on children with myositis. They attended the Cure JM annual patient conference, and there Maddie befriended a group of other teens who also lived with myositis. It didn’t take long for Maddie to become a leader in this organization, one of the “older kids” who, the following year, helped lead the panels she had learned so much from the previous year.

Maddie discovered a passion for helping others through the rough spots of living with JDM. She had a Facebook page and website, Maddie Strong, where she talked about her challenges with her disease. Once she even posted a video demonstrating how she gives herself SCIG treatments.

Maddie may have powered through at the beginning of her disease, but eventually the walls started crumbling. During the summer before college, she started looking around and realizing how much had been taken away from her.

“That’s when I started dealing with depression,” she says. “I was thrown so much off course. It was really, really hard. I know everything happens for a reason and I’m really I glad to be where I am. I’m glad I’m at York. I’m actually really happy I’m not playing soccer. But it took a lot out of me.”

It’s the friends she met along the way, the other kids who share this disease and understand the journey, who have helped her get through that dark time.

“They have always been the first families that we’ve reached out to,” Chris says. “If she was feeling really low or like life isn’t worth living anymore or the medicine is just too much, she always had people to turn to who could walk her through it, because they’ve already been there.”

Now as she prepares to start her junior year of college, Maddie is strong. She’s an education major, making the dean’s list, works with K through eighth graders at the York City schools, and is an education technology entrepreneur with a fun teaching app for kids she’s hoping to market. Best of all, her disease is in remission.

Still, kids who are struggling with coming to terms with the life-altering experience of a disabling rare disease diagnosis like JDM are never far from this young advocate’s mind.

“The one thing that I wish I could tell parents is, for kids who are going through this, the mental health aspects are a really big deal,” Maddie says. “I would say focus your attention more on the fact that your kid is going through a lot of mental stuff right now. They are confused and they don’t understand and its really scary. Just talk about what’s going on.”