Teetering on the Verge of TRAP (part 3 of Ms. Lab Rat’s newest adventure)

I didn’t jump into the TRAP trial eagerly.

When I first got a pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health advising me of my eligibility for a new study, I thought perhaps there’d been some mistake. This study was designed for people with progressive MS, the most serious form of multiple sclerosis, a most serious degenerative disease. That couldn’t apply to me. I was an MS success story. I was Ms. Lab Rat, the patient who had cleverly evaded a continued barrage of MS lesions by taking a fortuitous risk on an off-label drug. In over a decade of respite from new inflammation, neurologist after neurologist  told me I was doing everything right, told me I was doing great. None of them mentioned I was slipping into the progressive form of the disease.

And yet.

I myself had not been satisfied, had not felt I was doing everything I could to stop or slow the ongoing catastrophe that is MS. As much as I was grateful for the drug I was taking, I thought for sure that the drug had worked more efficiently when I first took it back in my late 30’s, when it was delivered off-label via IV infusion. The form of the drug that I later took for an NIH study, the form that eventually hit the market as Zinbryta, came in a little tiny vial, not a whopping big IV bag, and felt that much less miraculous. Sure, I was still avoiding MS relapses, but I was also no longer swimming for hours or taking long hikes. Or even short walks.

The cover of the NIH pamphlet asked, Is your MS progressing, in spite of treatments?

I wasn’t exactly sure.

Wouldn’t some neurologist have told me if my MS had become progressive?

One would think.

Would I have wanted them to?

Hell, no. Back in 2005, I fired a neurologist for telling me my MS was never going to get any better. Which started me on the search that led to Dr. Bielekova, who actually did make my MS get better, without ever making any promises that she could. She had prescribed the drug she was researching with great reluctance, because I’d been insistent. She’d warned me there was no guarantee of success. Yet it had been a success.

As I set the pamphlet down I saw Dr. Bielekova’s name was attached to the study. While I was still mostly in denial that the pamphlet could apply to me, I did have friends with progressive MS, friends who had lost their employment, much of their mobility, and in the worst case, much of their memory. Connecting them to an NIH study could give them access to some of the most nimble minds examining this insidious disease. I picked the pamphlet back up.

The trial proposed to measure the effects of four established medications, currently treatments for other diseases, to see if they could ameliorate the effects of MS. The drug that had changed the course of my disease had originally been used to keep the immune systems of organ transplant patients from attacking the transplanted organ; Dr. Bielekova had guessed that perhaps it could likewise be used to keep the immune systems of MS patients from self-attack. Clinical trial patients like me had helped to prove her theory correct. Apparently she was looking to repeat this success.

The pamphlet didn’t make any claims of how any of these four drugs might potentially help a person with MS. Instead, it went into detail about potential side effects. Which was all very above board. But not very tempting.

Furthermore, the timing of the pamphlet was off.

The pamphlet arrived in the spring, a time of hope. I had just enrolled in a clinical trial examining the effect of diet on MS. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a teaspoon of cod-liver here, a sprig of seaweed there, would be all it took to fix me? I could only do one trial at a time. Why not stick with the wholesome one? The one without potential side effects.

When I called the number on the pamphlet, I disclosed my participation in the diet trial right away. I explained I was asking… for a friend. The doctor I spoke with was unfamiliar to me, but warm and sympathetic. She urged me to let the NIH pay to fly me out anyway, just to keep  updated on my progress with Zinbryta. I had nothing to lose beyond a wee bit of spinal fluid, which I would easily replenish. If there were signs of progression, I would qualify for the study. If it turned out I wasn’t progressing, well, that would be good information to have.

And that was how I’d wound up back at the NIH late last June for a spinal tap.

The results came in during the July 4 holidays. I got a voice mail message that I did indeed qualify for the study. The unspoken implication was clear. I could consider myself as having progressive MS. My calls to the clinic went unreturned. I blamed the holiday. Then summer vacations.

I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was devastated. I decided to look on the bright side. While the Swank Diet I was on for my current clinical trial wasn’t yet working any wonders, maybe its competitor, the Wahls Diet, would do the trick.  And if neither diet reversed my symptoms, at least there would be TRAP to turn to. If only someone from the clinic would return my calls.

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Wahls Elimination Diet vs Swank Diet: Which Is the More Effective Treatment for MS Related Fatigue? Ms. Lab Rat jumps into the maze.

Some Background (faithful readers can skip to paragraph 5):

As my faithful readers know, I am a machine with faulty wiring. Multiple Sclerosis has somehow managed to convince my T-cells to attack the insulation that surrounds the nerves conducting all the information my body needs to function optimally. This insulation is called myelin, and my myelin is ratty with scars. (Multiple sclerosis=many scars.)

When I got the diagnosis, I refused to accept my fate. I tried the first medication I was offered. And when that didn’t work, I tried a second. And when that didn’t work, I entered a clinical study of a new medication, one, I was told, that really made a difference. But as will happen 50% of the time with clinical studies, it turned out I was assigned to the control group. I didn’t get the new medication. I got a placebo. And I got more scars.

I not only tried new medications, I tried new doctors. (I moved around a lot, at first, so that part could not be helped.) When my fourth neurologist gave me the dour news that I was doing very badly, and could expect to do worse, and then much worse until I died, well, I switched to a cheerier doctor. Who gave me the same dire news, but with a big smile. I dumped her, too. Instead I found a brilliant researcher, Bibiana Bielekova. Researchers are always looking for better ways to do things. So am I.

Long story short, I talked Dr. Bielekova into letting me try an off-label drug that worked with the immune system, rather than fight it. Daclizumab works by boosting the population of Natural Killer Cells, which function like the good cops in the Wild West of my immune system; the Natural Killer Cells keep the rouge T-Cells, or bad cops, at bay. Daclizumab worked. The T-Cells stopped attacking my myelin. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a study of Daclizumab. I was lucky enough to join the safety arm of the study, so I was assured a constant supply of Daclizumab. In the last ten years, this medication has been so effective, the T-cells have only once managed to create a new scar. Earlier this year, the FDA apporved Daclizumab under the name Zinbryta. On the day I injected my last dose of free study medication, I was accepted into a new clinical trial.

Faithful readers, jump in here:

Finding a drug that stabilized my MS only solved half of my problem. While my T-cells have stopped chewing on the fatty myelin that insulates my nerves, the many scars created by years of insatiable gobbling still interrupt the signals of my central nervous system. I have to cope with fatigue, pain, lack of coordination and balance, and a digestive system that’s out to lunch. Oh yes, and a brain that continues to shrink. You would think, then, that a person as proactive as I am would have immediately acted when I saw a very convincing TED Talk by a smart researcher who overcame an even worse case of MS than mine. Like me, Dr. Terry Wahls took the latest greatest MS medication. And like me, her MS only got worse. Dr. Wahls soon found herself confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair. Unlike me, Dr. Wahls is a physician. She read the latest medical research about diseases in which brains shrink. She read studies in which animal brains had been protected from shrinkage using fish oil, creatine, and co-enzyme Q-10. She started taking human proportioned dosages of these substances, and started getting better. This was her first round of self-experimentation. Slowly but surely, she tweaked her diet to include and exclude certain nutrients and ultimately found herself out of the wheelchair, biking to a full day of work as a doctor, and, of course, promoting the diet that saved her. She managed to get the Multiple Sclerosis Society to chip in 1 million dollars to fund a scientific study to compare her diet with the Swank Diet, one that has been  found to help people with MS for decades. I, who was somehow too intimidated years ago to follow the Wahls Protocol, have now agreed to be part of this study, which is going to be a much more onerous and complicated option than simply buying her book and following along. How much more onerous and complicated? I’ll share the details in my next post. But strange as it is, a Lab Rat is a Lab Rat. I would rather experiment on my diet in a study as a contribution to the greater public knowledge than to simply tinker with the diet on my own.

How about you? Have you ever participated in a clincial trial? Would you?

 

 

Once A Lab Rat, Always a Lab Rat

The NIH study that has nurtured me since 2010 is over. The day I’ve been anticipating with measured trepidation has finally arrived. A few hours ago, I took the last of the vials of free medication from the NIH out of my refrigerator, and injected.

If the drug had not passed the FDA approval process, this would have been a very sad day. But it did pass. The fruition of the study is available commercially as Zinbryta. Dr. Z., my neurologist, has already set in motion a smooth transition for me; I’ll be the first of his MS patients to purchase Zinbryta. I won’t have to miss a dose of the drug that has given me my life back.

So today, then, marks the happy ending to my life as a Lab Rat?

Not so fast.

Today marks the closing of one chapter. And the opening of another.

This morning I received a phone call from a research assistant named Brianna. She asked me ten easy questions designed to provoke pleasant answers, such as, “Today is Tuesday, September 15, 2016” and, “Barack Obama is the President of the United States.” At the end of this quiz, I found myself qualified to be a Lab Rat in the MS Diet Study.

As any faithful reader of this blog knows, I am very interested in the role of diet in the management of MS. I’ve been intrigued by the Wahls Diet since seeing Dr. Wahl’s TED talk; I couldn’t help but be impressed that she has managed to eat her way out of a reclining wheelchair and back to full time medical practice.

This study will randomly assign me to either the Wahls Diet or the Swank Diet. As it happens, I am comfortable with both. Dr. Z. has met many people with MS leading active, healthy lives on the Swank diet. It will be a win for me either way.

I don’t have to ditch Zinbryta to participate.

Could a lab rat be any luckier?

Another fun perk of this study: I will be traveling to Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where I got my MFA in fiction, and, come to think of it, my MS diagnosis. This Lab Rat will be traveling full circle.

I do hope you will follow Ms. Lab Rat to my next maze in Iowa City. I won’t be able to blog about which MS Diet I am assigned to, because the researchers must be blind.

I am so very grateful, above all, to my husband, who likes our current diet very much, but is willing to give an MS diet a try.

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Finally…FDA Approves Zinbryta

IMG_4206I just read that the experimental drug I’ve been taking for ten years has finally been approved by the FDA and will be available as Zinbryta. This must mean Ms. Lab Rat is officially retired. After many years of commuting to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take the only drug that’s stopped the progress of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I am now going to have to buy the drug like everybody else.

You know what? I’m thrilled. I’ve hated having to hear heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of yet another person getting an MS diagnosis, getting an ineffectual, often expensive treatment, getting worse. They look at me, and I appear fine. I’m not, but I’m also not getting worse. My medication has worked. But for these past ten years, so many others with this disease have had no chance of seeing if this medication would work for them. My dear friend Debra died way too young still waiting for this day. As you can imagine, I’ve been on the phone a lot this afternoon, updating every person who has asked me about Zinbryta. This blog post is for those of you whose numbers aren’t in my contact list.

Until I let the world know the risk I took with this drug was worth it, I won’t feel that my tenure as a Lab Rat is well and truly over. But I guess an era has come to an end.

No more free flights to Washington DC for free MRI’s. No more free top level medical care. No more cognitive tests. (Hooray!) No more free monthly blood tests to check my liver function. (My liver is just fine, thank you.) No more nights on-site at the swank Safra Lodge. No more free stays at Bethesda Court Hotel. No more side trips to the awesome DC museums and zoo. No more viewings of indie films at Bethesda Row Cinema. No more delicious dinners at Bethesda’s many fine restaurants.

Do you get the idea that being in a clinical trial at the NIH has been a pretty sweet deal? It has been for me. But what I’ll miss the most will be the people: the brilliant doctors, nurses, and interns of the NIH. Why, even the taxi drivers usually had pretty fascinating back-stories to share, if given half a chance.

The one thing I regret about my participation in the trial is that I waited until the end to reach out to other guests at the NIH; like the older lady I met in the shuttle van who’d lost both breasts and lymph nodes to ineffectual and painful cancer treatments. The cancer had spread and spread for years until she was accepted for an NIH trial (“I couldn’t believe it, at my age.”) Now her NIH doctor extracts some of her immune cells, expands the cell population in the lab, and treats the cancer with it. Her cancer? Gone. The side effects? None. She’s one happy lady. The NIH complex is full of motivated people pursuing second chances, and I wish I hadn’t been too timid and/or respectful of their privacy to chat with them. (If anyone reading this is an NIH lab rat, consider this your invitation to introduce yourself.)

I’d meant for this blog post to be about Zinbryta, but I guess it’s just a big thank you note to the NIH.

Zinbryta has been safe and effective for me for years now, and I’m terribly eager to let people know that there is one more—I think far better—alternative out there to try. But if Zinbryta doesn’t work for you, do not despair. There are plenty of other MS drugs in the research pipeline. Maybe one day you’ll wind up as a Lab Rat, too. Clinical trials are not all MRI’s and blood work. They are also an investment for the future of others coping with disease. Who knows…maybe one of us will one day be a Lab Rat for the drug that winds up becoming the cure. I won’t stop hoping.

 

Ask About Your Medication

Note from the Rat: The medication I refer to as “daclizumab” back in 2011 is expected to be marketed to the public as “Zinbryta.”

It is good to ask questions. Even when the answers aren’t always pleasant—especially when the answers aren’t pleasant.
No one likes to ask questions when things are going well. My first months on daclizumab went really well, so I didn’t bother to ask my nurse about the origin of the clear liquid dripping down the IV tube into my veins. Whatever it was, it was working. My multiple sclerosis symptoms were fading into the background. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
So I didn’t.
Month after month, I had the same nurse arrive at my home for infusions. We took to chatting. The heparin scandal came along, taking the lives of 81 Americans who had assumed—as I’d assumed—that nothing fatal could be lurking in a labeled medication. That month, the nurse told me it wasn’t necessary to flush my veins with heparin. I gave her the go-ahead to use it anyway. I didn’t want to mess with success. Eventually, though, I think we may have agreed to skip the heparin flush. Daclizumab kept on working, either way.
The January 2010 home infusion seemed no different than the others. Neither of us knew it would be our last. As usual, my blood pressure was low, as was my temperature—96.8. As usual, I had no troubling new symptoms to report. The drip itself never took all that long—maybe 15 minutes— and as usual, the nurse and I chatted those minutes away. The nurse mentioned she’d seen me lifting weights at the rec center while she’d been walking the track. I told her it would be OK to interrupt me the next time she saw me there. Neither of us could have guessed there wouldn’t be a next time.
I didn’t start to feel funny until the nurse was gathering her bags to leave. Even then, I didn’t feel funny enough to stop her. My temperature shot up during the interval between the thud of the front door and the clap of the screen door —the screen door hinge is on backward, which makes for a thirty second delay.
I headed straight for the couch, and caught a glimpse out the window of the nurse’s car pulling away. I lay down. Something wasn’t right. At that time in my life, it was unusual for me to lie down while the sun was still shining. I dragged myself off the couch and up the stairs to take my temperature. 98.8.
I wasn’t sure if I should call the nurse. Everybody knows 98.8 is not a fever. But 98.8 was two degrees higher than my temperature of just half an hour before. I was comfortable with that nurse. Even so, I didn’t want her to think I was a big baby. Or a hypochondriac. Or a fool. But then I got to wondering about the contents of that IV bag. Who was to say it wasn’t tainted, like the heparin a while back?
I swallowed my pride. I called the nurse and left a message.
It was a good thing I did.
The high temp resolved itself without any apparent consequence. I felt sheepish when the nurse returned my call that afternoon. But then I heard her news. I quit being sheepish, and shifted into high alert.
Apparently, after listening to my message, she’d called the pharmacist to ask about my drug.
“Guess what he told me? He said I just gave you the last of that medication. It’s been taken off the U.S. market.”
I asked if there’d been another safety scandal. She assured me there had not. “Someone’s bought the entire inventory.”
I wondered aloud, “When was anyone going to tell me?”
The nurse didn’t have an answer for that.
If I hadn’t gotten that little spike on my temperature, I could have easily gone another month without knowing I had to line up a new MS medication. I’d already gone through all the standard MS meds, with no positive results, which was why I was taking an off-label drug in the first place. I didn’t know what I would do without daclizumab. There wasn’t another drug out there I knew of.
There’s a happy ending to this little anecdote.
Yes, it’s true I didn’t get the answer I expected when I asked about my medication. But that unexpected answer motivated me to ask more questions. I managed to track down Bibi Bielekova, the neurologist and researcher who had first put me on daclizumab. She had a new gig at the NIH. I sent her an email on a Saturday, asking for her guidance. She replied almost immediately.
Once again, I didn’t get the answer I expected. Her email contained an offer I couldn’t refuse.
As it turned out, Dr. Bielekova was the one who had gathered all the remaining stock of daclizumab. She’d just negotiated a clinical trial for the next generation of daclizumab, called DAC HYP. She would be switching her patients who’d been on daclizumab long term to this new preparation. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have an opening to accommodate one more patient in the trial. My flights would be paid for. Then came the clincher, “The care at NIH, including the drug, is free.”
Now you know how I can afford to make all those trips to DC; I happened to ask the right question of the right person at precisely the right time. I’m going to try to make a habit of that.
My next entry will be a review of the formidable book, Dangerous Doses, written by Katherine Eban, another woman who isn’t afraid to ask questions about medications. The answers she’s uncovered may disturb you. Or they may just motivate you. Dangerous Doses has certainly motivated me. Our drugs are too important to remain a mystery.

Riding the Tide

“Lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenge of the truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few.” -Joseph Campbell
When I first went on daclizumab, I was euphoric. After going through six neurologists, and three MS medications, I finally found a brilliant neurologist who had uncovered an off-label medication that appeared to actually work.
My husband remained unmoved. He girded himself for every outcome, including the possibility that the medication would fail.
I shared his neutrality. At first. But then daclizumab surpassed my expectations. I had wanted nothing more than a medication that would prevent further exacerbations. What I got was a medication that did all that and more. Suddenly, I felt…able. I was able to hike and swim and lift weights. So I did. I pushed my suddenly able body to astonishing new limits. I rode the wave. I soared. My husband stood steadfast, like a beacon on the shore. He appreciated my toned body, but he didn’t expect it to last.
Indeed, it didn’t last.
No body lasts.
Love lasts.
Years passed. My physical capabilities became less and less astonishing. I had very much enjoyed becoming super-fit. As my physical parameters kept shrinking, I kept pushing back. It was with great reluctance that I finally learned to stop wanting more of my body than it can deliver.
This week, my hard-won acceptance was put to the test. I would have to also learn to stop wanting more of my medication than it can deliver.
The moment of truth arrived on Tuesday. I finally received the news my husband has been girding against ever since I started taking daclizumab, shortly after Tysabri was pulled from the market in ‘05. In all that time, my MRI’s have always come back with no further lesions. I’ve been lucky.
I’ve kept up on the preliminary results of the daclizumab trials, and while they are impressive, I couldn’t help but notice there hasn’t been a 100% cessation of disease activity across the board. Something had to give.
Now finally, something has.
My latest MRI came back with one enhanced lesion.
Just one little lesion, located in the so-called “silent area.” My local neurologist doesn’t think one lesion would be worth attacking with steroids. (And I must say, I’m relieved.)
The news of the MRI didn’t shock me. It was almost a comfort. I already knew I wasn’t well. It actually felt good to have some confirmation that there was a reason, even if that reason was inconveniently screaming from the “silent area.”
Daclizumab has worked wonders for me. But it is what is. It’s a medication—the best I’ve ever taken. It is not a miracle. It is not a cure.
Daclizumab is fallible. Just like me. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
I’m glad I haven’t been afraid to hope. Hope did me no harm, after all. Yes, I was once euphoric, but with good reason. I’d been given a reprieve. When the facts changed, I didn’t break. I changed along with them.
It’s been a good ride.

Type A

Today a specialist asked me if I had a certain personality.
I may have responded with an arch look.
He rephrased the question. “How would you describe yourself? Your personality? ”
I knew where he was going with that line of questioning. He wanted me to confirm his at-a-glance hypothesis that I am a Type A personality. Apparently The Specialist subscribes to the popular theory that Type A personalities are more prone to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS.)
“Has anyone ever told you that you are a control freak?”
He has nothing to gain from this line of reasoning. Think about it. Of the two of us, who is more likely to have a Type A personality: the guy with the medical degree, or the gal with the MFA?
I countered, “I think that’s just blaming the victim.”
I don’t (necessarily) have a bad personality. I just have a bad disease.
The Specialist kept describing the Type A personality. “Do you set goals for yourself?”
“Sure I do. And maybe I’ll accomplish all of those goals in a day, and maybe I’ll only accomplish only one. Or none at all. My body has the final say.”
“So you’ve reached Acceptance.”
Acceptance. I didn’t know what The Specialist would think about that. Acceptance doesn’t carry much of a cachet among Type A personalities.
I ventured, “I don’t know if that’s good.”
Though of course, I do know that it’s good. In my case, Acceptance is reasonable. All my MRI’s in the past four years have come back showing no new lesions. It’s appropriate to reach Acceptance when you’re on a drug that actually works.
The Specialist was happy to hear about the efficacy of the drug, even though he couldn’t find “daclizumab” or “DAC HYP” on his portable information device. (I probably spelled it all wrong.) He seemed more frustrated that he couldn’t shoehorn my personality into his Type A hypothesis. He kept trying. He listed high achievers who had autoimmune diseases. Montel Williams’ MS. Michael J. Fox’s Parkinsons.
I could think of one other thing these guys had in common, besides autoimmune diseases. “These guys are both celebrities. You kind of have to be a high achiever to become a celebrity.”
Whereas, you absolutely don’t have to be a high achiever to become a patient with MS. It’s just not that simple. I know plenty of high achievers. And most of them are not celebrities. Most of them don’t have an autoimmune disease, either. Nor do they deserve one.
I don’t deserve one, either.
“Do you think you used to have a Type A personality, back before your diagnosis?”
Back before my diagnosis, I’d majored in philosophy. What kind of Type A personality would be stupid enough to major in a thing like that?
The kind of Type A personality who thought English majors weren’t thinking hard enough.
Fine.
Have it your way, Specialist.
He proposed, “Some people think meditation could be helpful for people with multiple sclerosis.”
So now he’s “some people.”
“Meditation could be helpful for anyone.”
Touché.
I’m not making a very good case for my being a Type other than A.
The Specialist is an Ear, Nose, Throat guy.
He finally got around to asking me to stick out my tongue.
“You know, thousands of years of Chinese medicine has taught them to diagnose an entire person with one glimpse of the tongue.”
Diagnose?
Or simplify?
I had my tongue sticking out, so I couldn’t reply. And anyway, I didn’t think of a good comeback until after I left the examining room. Here it is: “For hundreds of years, Gypsies have said they can see a person’s fate with one glimpse of the palm.” You don’t see me rushing out to consult any gypsy. I consulted my half-Chinese husband instead. My half-Chinese husband said my sharp tongue was one of the first qualities he loved about me.
So maybe there is a perk to being Type A, after all.
The Specialist had said, “Things happen for a reason.”
I agree with half of that statement. Things happen. But If you’re going to look for a reason, don’t stick your tongue out at a Chinese guy, and thrust your palm onto a gypsy’s lap. That’s just silly. None of us are so special we should waste our breath whining, “why me?”
I may have a strong personality, but I don’t think it’s so strong it could cause a disease.
While I was waiting for The Specialist, I was reading Population 485, a delightful book by a Michael Perry, a volunteer fireman. He writes, “We are creatures of myth, hungry for metaphor and allegory, but most of all, hungry for sense.”
Sometimes our hunger for sense has us gobbling up nonsense.
Perry writes, “Surely, we tell ourselves, we can’t die just because we hit a patch of pebbles on a curve.”
But as Perry clearly illustrates, we can and we do.
We identify with our problems, with our illness, with our fate, instead of detaching, and researching cause and effect.
I think I’ve figured out why I contracted MS. It had nothing to do with my personality, and everything to do with my intestinal parasites.
Surprised? So was I.
It’s a wild, random world. (Is this the observation of a Type A control freak?)
Namaste.