Anti-CD20 vs. Teriflunomide

Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer: ★★ (seeing blue)

When I state that the real MS is smouldering MS and that relapses and focal MRI activity are not the disease I really mean it. 

PwMS who are NEDA-2, without relapses and with no new MRI lesions, but getting worse must have something going on in their brains and spinal cords. This is why we need to go beyond NEIDA (no evidence of inflammatory disease activity) as a treatment target in MS and focus on protecting the end-organ so that pwMS can have enough reserve to cope with normal ageing when they get older.

One example or ugly fact to illustrate the disconnect between inflammation (relapses and focal MRI activity) and the end-organ (brain volume loss) is the recent ofatumumab vs. teriflunomide trials. 

Gd-enhancing lesions (↓~95%): Ofatumumab >>>> teriflunomide

New T-2 lesions (↓~83%): Ofatumumab >>> teriflunomide

Relapses (↓~55%): Ofatumumab >> teriflunomide

Disability progression (↓~33%): Ofatumumab > teriflunomide

Brain volume loss (↓~0%): Ofatumumab = teriflunomide

If ofatumumab is so much more effective as an anti-inflammatory than teriflunomide why doesn’t it protect the end-organ more than teriflunomide? I don’t know but is clear, at least to me, that there is something else going on that is driving the end-organ damage in MS that is not linked to focal inflammation. Could something about teriflunomide’s mode of action that is downstream of focal inflammation be telling us something fundamental about the cause of MS?

Conflicts of Interest

Preventive Neurology

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General Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed here are those of Professor Giovannoni and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry nor Barts Health NHS Trust.

Which side of the fence are you on?

Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer: zero-★s (still seeing red)

Apologies some more definitions: 

Side of the fence: used to refer to either of the opposing positions or interests involved in a particular situation.

Status quo: the current situation; the way things are now. The MS community, i.e. patients and HCPs are content with the status quo and aren’t looking for a change. 

NEDA: no evident MS disease activity

The question you need to ask yourself is which side of the fence are you on? MS is a focal inflammatory disease of the central nervous system vs. MS is a smouldering disease process and focal inflammatory events are in response to what is causing the disease. If you favour the former you will be happy with being NEDA-2, i.e. having no relapses or new focal inflammatory lesions. If you are in the latter camp you will want to focus on end-organ damage and preserving your brain and spinal cord volume for old age. 

The wider MS community seems to prefer the current dogma and status quo; i.e. that MS is a focal inflammatory disease and that everything we see can be explained by relapses and focal MRI activity. I think this is wrong and have argued this from not only a scientific point of view but also from a philosophical one. 

Deciding which side of the fence you are on may make an enormous difference to your outcome. It is clear that not all DMTs are made equal when it comes to preserving brain volume and hence brain reserve. 

Did you know that pwMS lose brain volume at a 2-7x faster rate than age-matched controls from the general population? Accelerated brain volume loss predicts and is strongly associated with cognitive impairment and long term disability. The following picture shows you just how much brain someone with MS can lose over an 18 month period. 

If we moved our treatment target to go beyond NEDA to focus on protecting the end-organ so that pwMS may have a brain that is in good enough condition to withstand the ageing process in later life I suspect the treatment landscape would change dramatically. To achieve this we need to diagnose MS and treat it early and effectively and in many cases, we need to flip the pyramid and use high efficacy therapies at the beginning, in particular agent such as alemtuzumab and AHSCT, which have been shown to protect the end-organ better than other DMTs. 

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Preventive Neurology

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General Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed here are those of Professor Giovannoni and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry nor Barts Health NHS Trust.

#ThinkCognition: how precious is my brain?

Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer: ★

As someone with MS do you worry about how you are going to cope with ageing and old age? 

As MS shreds both your brain and cognitive reserve will MS bring forward and accelerate the ageing process and the time when you may develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease? These are all hypotheses but are very relevant to people with MS (pwMS) and their families. 

I recall how much stick I got from the MS community, including some very close colleagues when I tried to rebrand MS as a ‘preventable dementia’. The objective of the #ThinkCognition campaign was to make the MS community look beyond the blinkers of the EDSS and realise that MS was not only physical disabling but it was affecting cognition much earlier than people realised. For example, 40% of people already have significant cognitive impairment in at least two cognitive domains at the CIS (clinically-isolated syndrome) stage of their disease. If you go earlier to RIS (radiologically-isolated syndrome) or asymptomatic stage of the disease about a quarter of subjects have cognitive impairment. People with RIS and CIS are not aware of having cognitive impairment because the brain is able to compensate for the damage at an early stage. 

In early MS cognitive impairment is more likely to cause cognitive fatigue and be associated with anxiety and depression than overt cognitive problems. The brain compensates for the damage by doing extra work, consuming more energy and getting tired more easily. Most people with MS realise they attention spans are often markedly reduced because of this phenomenon.

The reason why 50% of pwMS living in Europe are unemployed at an EDSS of 3.0 to 3.5 is not physical but cognitive disabilities. The #ThinkCognition campaign highlights the early hit the MS brain takes and makes the argument for effective early treatment to prevent dementia. 

The problem with society’s view of dementia, i.e. of a little old lady with poor memory in a care home,  is that it doesn’t easily translate to MS. What you have to remember is that dementia is a syndrome and MS is a well-known cause of dementia. The definition of dementia is that it is an acquired (not born with it), chronic (greater than 6 months), progressive condition (gets worse over time) that affects cognition in multiple domains (for example, problem-solving, processing speed, memory, speech, calculations, etc.) and impacts on the individuals occupational and social functioning. I would challenge anyone to say that worsening MS-related cognitive impairment fulfil this definition of dementia. The good news is that dementia associated with MS is preventable, i.e. if you treat MS early and effectively you will stop the end-organ damage and prevent the consequences of MS on longterm cognitive functioning. 

Now the question about bringing forward ageing and the presentation of other neurodegenerative diseases is an open question. Below is a case report of an elderly woman with MS who presents with memory loss and a workup showed a pattern of cognitive decline that was more in keeping with Alzheimer’s disease than MS. She then goes onto to have diagnostic amyloid and is diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. One could argue if she didn’t have MS this may have protected her from getting Alzheimer’s disease or at least delayed its onset by several years. 

It is important to stress that the type of cognitive impairment associated with MS is very different to that of classic or amnestic Alzheimer’s disease and well-done neuropsychological tests should be able to differentiate the two conditions (see pilot study below). Saying that I have a handful of patients with ‘cognitive MS’ who have taken a massive hit on their ability to store and process short term memory because in their case MS has affected the temporal lobes and their connecting structures that are critical for memory. 

Other issues that the #ThinkCognition campaign addresses are (1) the need to be able to identify relapses as being purely cognitive, (2) using cognitive impairment to say that patients with RIS have CIS or MS so they can be treated, (3) using a change in cognition to define worsening MS or progressive disease, (4) incorporating cognition into our treatment target in MS, (5) including cognitive screening or testing as part of the annual MS assessment and (6) including cognition in our longterm treatment goal of maximising brain health for the life of the pwMS. 

I want to point out that none of the points I make in this post is necessarily accepted by the wider MS community and many of the points remain controversial, which is why I would encourage a debate around these issues. What I can tell you, however, if I had MS I would want my neurologist and MS team to treat me as if my brain was the most precious thing on planet earth; I would want them to protect my cognition and make it their number one objective. I suspect this is easier said than done. 

Progressive brain volume loss or atrophy in a pwMS over 18 months

Jakimovski et al. Differential Diagnosis of Cognitive Decline in Elderly Individuals With Multiple Sclerosis. Cogn Behav Neurol. 2020 Dec;33(4):294-300.

Due to increasingly improved disability outcomes, and the resultant significantly improved life span, of the multiple sclerosis (MS) population, questions regarding cognitive aging and the prevalence of comorbid Alzheimer disease (AD) have emerged. We describe neuropsychological and MRI-based changes that occurred in an 84-year-old MS patient with comorbid amnestic mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to AD) and cerebrovascular pathology. The neuropsychological examination demonstrated impairment in cognitive processing speed as well as in verbal and visual memory-domains that are potentially affected by any, or all, of the three co-existing diseases. Amyloid-based PET imaging showed increased focal uptake within the gray matter of the occipital lobe. We highlight how these clinical and radiologic observations can inform future research that could elucidate interactions between MS, a probable AD diagnosis, and cerebrovascular pathology in elderly individuals with MS. A comprehensive neuropsychological examination of multiple cognitive domains of individuals with MS may aid in the differential diagnosis of late-in-life cognitive decline.

Roy et al. Preliminary investigation of cognitive function in aged multiple sclerosis patients: Challenges in detecting comorbid Alzheimer’s disease. Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2018 May;22:52-56.

Background: Cognitive impairment can be seen in patients of all ages with multiple sclerosis (MS). However, there is limited research on neurocognitive disorder in older adults with MS and how to detect Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or its prodromal stage, amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI). Thus, the MS clinician is challenged to discriminate between signs of MS-related cognitive decline versus a secondary neurodegenerative process.

Objective: Compare cognition in older MS patients to patients with AD and aMCI.

Methods: We evaluated cognitively impaired and unimpaired MS patients, AD patients, aMCI patients, and healthy controls (HCs), all elderly (n = 20 per group). AD and aMCI diagnoses were derived by consensus conference independent of the MS research project. Neuropsychological measures assessed domains commonly affected in AD, including verbal memory and expressive language.

Results: Cognitively impaired and unimpaired MS groups did not differ on any measures sensitive to AD. Unimpaired MS patients were comparable to HCs. Impaired MS patients showed decreased semantic fluency, similar to aMCI patients. Lastly, while both AD and aMCI groups had deficient memory retention, there was no evidence of a retention deficit in either MS group.

Conclusion: Our findings suggest that the cognitive profiles of MS and AD are distinct. In contrast to AD, MS is not associated with impairment of memory consolidation. However, there may be overlap between cognitive deficits related to MS and aMCI. Thus, evidence of poor memory retention, in an older MS patient may merit comprehensive dementia evaluation. The study is preliminary and includes no AD biomarkers (e.g., amyloid imaging) to confirm or rule out AD pathology.

Crowdfunding: Have you contributed to Prof G’s ‘Bed-to-5km Challenge’ in support of MS research?

CoI: multiple

Twitter: @gavinGiovannoni                                    Medium: @gavin_24211

A sequence of losses

Prof G has the MS community go it wrong?

In this week’s NEJM there is an insightful perspective by Louise Aronson on ageing and driving.

Aronson. Don’t Ruin My Life — Aging and Driving in the 21st Century. N Engl J Med 2019; 380:705-707.

Louise quotes the American poet Donald Hall, who explains in Essays After Eighty how life is irrevocably and excruciatingly changed when a person must let go of their car: “For years I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor, someone has to drive me. …Old age is a ceremony of losses.”

Although this refers to old age the same can be said for someone with MS. MS is a sequence of losses. Does it have to be this like this? I hope not, but to get to this position we need to go beyond NEDA.  

I am running one of our Barts-MS teaching programmes this week in which a case was presented by one of the delegates. The lady, who is in her early thirties, has a diagnosis of relapsing MS and is NEDA, off therapy for 5 years, i.e. no relapses and no new T2 lesions. However, when you look at her sequential MRIs next to each other it is clear that she has progressive brain volume loss. She has NEDA-3, but clearly, something else is happening to her brain. I suggested to the neurologist looking after this patient to interrogate her in detail, i.e. to measure her brain volume, send her for cognitive testing, arrange for a more objective interrogation of her neurological functioning and to do a lumbar puncture to assess if she has inflammation and ongoing damage as measured by CSF neurofilament levels. In other words, don’t rely on what we have now to assess her MS disease activity.

The problem we have is that we have created a beast called NEDA and the wider MS community now think evident disease activity or EDA (relapses and focal MRI activity) is MS. EDA is obviously not MS. It is clear that EDA in untreated patients is a very poor predictor of outcome. IF EDA was MS it would predict outcome regardless of being treated or not. In other words, EDA fails one of Prentice’s criteria for being a surrogate marker of MS.

Despite writing frequently on the topic that MS is not due to relapses and/or focal MRI activity the dogma seems to stick. I have arguably helped create NEDA as a treatment target and have been responsible for some of its stickiness as a treatment target. Can I admit I am wrong? NEDA is a useful construct, but it is now becoming a barrier to treating MS properly.

If I was a behavioural psychologist I would be referring to NEDA as the new cognitive bias. We need to shift our worldview of MS away from an MRI worldview. What we should be doing is creating a biological worldview of MS and asking what is happening in the ‘field‘ or the brains of people with MS. We have to explain why end-organ damage is ongoing despite switching off focal inflammatory activity. What is driving SELs (slowly expanding lesions), the subpial cortical lesion, grey matter atrophy and the accelerated brain volume loss? If we don’t then MS will remain a sequence of losses.

What is end-organ damage?

Help! How do I manage progressive brain atrophy in a patient who is NEDA-3?

End-organ damage is a catch-all phrase for the degeneration of the brain; it occurs as part of the ageing process that some consider pathological and others as a normal fact of life. I have hinted that I consider it both because end-organ damage is potentially modifiable via lifestyle modifications and pharmacological interventions. If it was a normal process it should not be modifiable. How can you be more normal than normal? Making ageing a disease also has political ramifications, for example, it will almost certainly incentivise Pharma to develop treatments for ageing.

In MS end-organ damage is massively accelerated by the MS disease process itself, i.e. inflammation and demyelination, and from delayed downstream processes triggered by inflammation, for example, energy failure, microglial activation, ongoing inflammation driven by antibodies, possible slow viral infection and its consequences and comorbidities. It is clear that all people with MS will have end-organ damage, but what can we do about it? To be honest, apart from early treatment to prevent damage, we haven’t got an evidence base about how to manage this problem in MS.

As an example, I saw a patient earlier this week. He has relapsing-remitting MS diagnosed in the mid-2000s and started on interferon-beta (Avonex). He also has type 1 diabetes which he developed when he was 14 years of age, 8 years before he was diagnosed with MS. His diabetes was poorly controlled initially but is now well controlled on an insulin pump. He has renal (proteinuria), eye (retinopathy) and hypertension as complications of his diabetes. His hypertension is controlled on medication. He has been relapse-free and his MRI has not shown any obvious new lesions over the last 6 years; i.e. he is NEDA-3. He does not smoke, but he drinks between 3 and 4 units of alcohol per day. He was referred to me because he is sick and tired of injecting himself with interferon and he has heard of a new drug called ocrelizumab. He wants to be switched to it because is more efficacious and only give every 6 months. His treating neurologist said no, hence his referral to me for a second opinion.

When I went through his history it is clear he has had no relapses in the last 6 years and is fully functional and working full-time. I reviewed his MRIs and I agree he has no new lesions over the last 6 years, but he has developed quite profound and progressive brain atrophy over this timeframe; he is definitely not NEDA-4. What do I do?

Do I switch him from interferon-beta to ocrelizumab? Or do I leave him on Avonex, which is doing its job and rendering him NEDA-3?

If I do switch him to ocrelizumab, will it normalise his brain volume loss? Will he become NEDA-4?

What is causing his brain volume loss? MS, hypertension, diabetes, alcohol or something else?

Do I tell him about his gross brain atrophy, which he is blissfully unaware of?

Do I offer him a formal cognitive assessment to see if he has cognitive impairments? If he has a cognitive assessment and they come back abnormal, which they are likely to, how do I tell him? Will knowing he cognitively impaired affect his management?

Do I offer him a lumbar puncture to measure his spinal fluid neurofilament levels?

Do I recommend any add-on off-label treatments that may help?

Or do I just take the easy option and send him back to his neurologist with a recommendation to leave things as is?

Can I suggest we debate these issues over the next few days and I can then potentially do a live webinar on the issue of end-organ damage and how to handle the problem of progressive brain volume loss on DMTs when you are NEDA-3.

Prof G how much brain have I lost this year?

How soon will MSers have brain volume measurements as part of their annual assessments?

As a reader of this blog, you may be aware that ‘life is a sexually-transmitted age-dependent terminal neurodegenerative disease’. Homo sapiens, as a species, is pushing its biological capabilities to its limits. We have conquered most diseases that used to cull us before our mid-thirties and the end of our reproductive age. In the same way, as the technology sector has learnt to build in senescence into its products to ensure we upgrade our gadgets every 18-24 months, evolution has selected for biological senescence to make sure the current generation does not freeload on the next generation. When we have finite resources, why should we waste precious food on the older generation when we have to ensure the current generation reproduces to pass on its genes? A counter-argument to this ruthless biological perspective is that cultural evolution now takes precedence over biological evolution and it is societies and not individuals who are driving evolution. Culture and some heritable traits have clearly interacted with our environments, which explains why some isolated populations are enriched for people who are healthy agers. We are learning from studying these populations and unpacking the relevant biology to identify future treatment targets for healthy ageing. Do you want to be a healthy or super ager? If you have MS this is unlikely to happen.

These insights are telling us ageing is a biological process and therefore hackable, i.e. we will at some point learn how to reprogramme ourselves to reverse or at a minimum delay the effects of ageing. The reason I say this that we already do this in the form of reproduction; we produce sperm and eggs that go onto to recombine and form offspring that have their senescence programmes set to zero. Why can’t we do this at any stage of life?

Cellular senescence is accelerated by various stressors, which at the level of the whole organism results in premature ageing. The corollary of this is that certain lifestyle interventions appear to delay ageing mechanisms, or at least increases the resilience of the organism so that the consequences of ageing only become apparent much later on in life. Our increasing ability to manipulate these stressors and/or resilience mechanisms should empower individuals to maximise their health and wellness for future gain.

Is this relevant for MS? Yes, it must be. Firstly, many of the cellular stressors that result in ageing are upregulated in the brains of  MSers. We also know that one of the resilience mechanisms that protects us from age-related cognitive impairment is brain and cognitive reserve. As MSers get old you rely on these exact same mechanism to allow yourselves to age healthily. If you get to old age with a deficit how can you expect to age normally? As MS starts to shred your brain reserve from the earliest stages of the disease the treatment objective should be to address this from the outset? Therefore, how do we get the MS community to shift its treatment target beyond NEDA and to focus on the end-organ and the preservation of brain reserve?

One possible option would be to equip MS healthcare professionals (HCPs) and you the MSers with the tools to monitor end-organ damage more closely. Wouldn’t you want to know what is happening to your brain volume on an annual basis? Would you want to know if you are losing more brain than average?

Several companies are beginning to scale up their image analysis software and providing it online for MS centres and possibly individuals to measure their own brain volume and to get feedback based on a normogram; i.e. a normal distribution of brain volumes for age and to plot where on the standard curve you are. Your brain volume can then be measured and plotted annually to establish your trajectory.

The naysayers will say that this technology can’t be used on an individual basis as it has not been validated in clinical practice. The naysayers are in for a big surprise; I suspect the regulators are will approve these algorithms long before they are ready to incorporate them into routine clinical care. However, these very same naysayers often present group data at meetings with great confidence. Group data is what it is, an academic construct, that is far removed from clinical care and the individual with MS. My personal opinion about biomarkers is that you need to put them out there, with obvious disclaimers, and see how they are used. Technology itself works magic in many different ways.

I think having personal annual brain atrophy data will get both the neurologists, other HCPs and MSers to think differently about managing MS and it may be the nudge we need to treat MS more effectively early on and to change our treatment target. I also have little doubt that the methodology of measuring whole brain volume, grey and white matter volumes, lesion volume and the number and volume of lesions expanding will only get better and more accurate with time. So bring it on!

Do you agree with me? If not, let’s have a debate. End-organ damage and brain volume is very topical at the moment.

CoI: multiple

The Learner

Do we need to include cognition as a treatment target in multiple sclerosis?

In every clinic, I do patients with MS complain of cognitive symptoms. Either it is increasing forgetfulness, difficult multi-tasking, the inability to learn and use a new technology or cognitive fatigue.

Case study: One of my high functioning patients, who worked in a large City law firm, simply could not keep up and was recently forced to take early retirement because of her MS. She had been interferon-beta-1b for 12 years but had stopped treatment about 7 years ago when she had moved to London. Her MRI showed a highish lesion load and severe brain atrophy. She had had a few relapses on interferon-beta in the early years, but her neurologist decided to leave her on interferon-beta. Back then this was normal practice; we didn’t expect interferon-beta to render you relapse-free. Interferons were only meant to reduced attack rates by about a third and severe attacks, i.e. those requiring steroids and/or hospital admission, by about a half. The only alternative when this patient was having relapses on interferon-beta was glatiramer acetate; please remember this was pre-natalizumab era. Apart from her cognitive problems, this patient had mild unsteadiness of gait, but this had not affected her walking distance and she was still able to do yoga several times per week. To help with her unemployment insurance claim I requested a formal neuropsychological assessment and she was documented to have profound cognitive deficits across multiple domains. The conclusion based on these tests was that she would never be able to have meaningful employment again; at least not in the knowledge economy When I took a detailed history it was clear that she had had progressive cognitive impairment over at least 7-10 years. In other words, she had secondary progressive MS manifesting as progressive dementia.

You must not underestimate the impact MS has on cognition. Cognitive problems can be there from the start; approximately a quarter of people with a radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) or asymptomatic MS already have cognitive impairment. The proportion with cognitive impairment just gets higher the longer you have the disease. What is driving cognitive impairment is almost certainly grey matter pathology, both in the cortex and deep grey matter, which is not detected with our current monitoring tools.

In the analysis below, of the pivotal phase 3 fingolimod trials, we showed that not being able to improve on the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT) at baseline predicted a worse outcome. The PASAT is a very sensitive cognitive test that used to part of the battery we called the MS Functional Composite (MSFC). The PASAT is not very nice to do and has now been replaced by the SDMT (symbol digital modality test).

When you start doing cognitive screening tests such as the PASAT and SDMT you tend to improve the scores due to a learning effect. We hypothesised that pwMS who couldn’t learn i.e. were unable to improve their PASAT scores at baseline would do worse. This is exactly what we found and we noted it regardless of treatment allocation; i.e. whether you were on fingolimod or placebo. Poor learners were older, had a higher disability score at baseline, smaller brains and higher lesions volumes on MRI; i.e. they had reduced cognitive reserve. The depressing point about this analysis was that even the poor learners on fingolimod did badly; it was if they were already primed to do badly and that starting a DMT had a limited impact on the outcome. Active MS in the past had primed their brains to continue deteriorating; previous damage or a new type of MS lesion, possibly SELs (slowly expanding lesions) was driving their worsening.

The message here is that it is very important to prevent the ravages of MS by treating as early and effectively as possible. In some pwMS, this is easy because you present early before too much damage has accrued. In others, you may have longer asymptomatic periods during which you have already acquired a lot of damage. Regardless of what group you are in, you need to seriously consider getting on top of your MS disease activity as soon as possible to prevent further damage.

It is clear from the Sormani meta-analysis (article 2 below) that you do best on DMTs that have the greatest impact on inflammatory activity (new MRI lesions) and those that reduce brain volume loss the most. This is why flipping the pyramid and going for the most effective DMTs first-line is a very appealing treatment strategy; particularly those that ‘normalise’ brain volume loss.

This study also raises the question about whether or not we should be monitoring cognition in routine clinical practice? This topic is a hot potato and gets discussed and debated all the time. At the moment I think most neurologists don’t agree with doing routine cognitive testing, because of the lack of evidence in terms of treatments that impact on cognition. This, however, may change when siponimod gets licensed. It is clear in the siponimod trial that siponimod delayed cognitive worsening compared to placebo. The following is the siponimod data that was presented at the AAN and EAN last year.

I believe that everyone with MS should have the option of monitoring their own cognition. If your cognition is improving and/or is stable that is good news. If, however, cognition is worsening then a frank discussion needs to be had about why it is getting worse and can anything be done about it. There are many reasons why pwMS may have worsening cognition and some of these are treatable. This is why we have developed an online cognitive test, which we are currently validating, to allow self-monitoring of cognition. If you had access to the test would you use it?

Article 1

Sormani et al. Learning ability correlates with brain atrophy and disability progression in RRMS. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2019 Jan;90(1):38-43.

OBJECTIVE: To assess the prognostic value of practice effect on Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT) in multiple sclerosis.

METHODS: We compared screening (day -14) and baseline (day 0) PASAT scores of 1009 patients from the FTY720 Research Evaluating Effects of Daily Oral therapy in Multiple Sclerosis (FREEDOMS) trial. We grouped patients into high and low learners if their PASAT score change was above or below the median change in their screening PASAT quartile group. We used Wilcoxon test to compare baseline disease characteristics between high and low learners, and multiple regression models to assess the respective impact of learning ability, baseline normalised brain volume and treatment on brain volume loss and 6-month confirmed disability progression over 2 years.

RESULTS: The mean PASAT score at screening was 45.38, increasing on average by 3.18 from day -14 to day 0. High learners were younger (p=0.003), had lower Expanded Disability Status Scale score (p=0.031), higher brain volume (p<0.001) and lower T2 lesion volume (p=0.009) at baseline. Learning status was not significantly associated with disability progression (HR=0.953, p=0.779), when adjusting for baseline normalised brain volume, screening PASAT score and treatment arm. However, the effect of fingolimod on disability progression was more pronounced in high learners (HR=0.396, p<0.001) than in low learners (HR=0.798, p=0.351; p for interaction=0.05). Brain volume loss at month 24 tended to be higher in low learners (0.17%, p=0.058), after adjusting for the same covariates.

CONCLUSIONS: Short-term practice effects on PASAT are related to brain volume, disease severity and age and have clinically meaningful prognostic implications. High learners benefited more from fingolimod treatment.

Article 2

Sormani et al. Treatment effect on brain atrophy correlates with treatment effect on disability in multiple sclerosis. Ann Neurol. 2014 Jan;75(1):43-9.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the extent to which treatment effect on brain atrophy is able to mediate, at the trial level, the treatment effect on disability progression in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

METHODS: We collected all published randomized clinical trials in RRMS lasting at least 2 years and including as endpoints disability progression (defined as 6 or 3 months confirmed 1-point increase on the Expanded Disability Status Scale), active magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) lesions (defined as new/enlarging T2 lesions), and brain atrophy (defined as change in brain volume between month 24 and month 6-12). Treatment effects were expressed as relative reductions. A linear regression, weighted for trial size and duration, was used to assess the relationship between the treatment effects on MRI markers and on disability progression.

RESULTS: Thirteen trials including >13,500 RRMS patients were included in the meta-analysis. Treatment effects on disability progression were correlated with treatment effects both on brain atrophy (R(2)  = 0.48, p = 0.001) and on active MRI lesions (R(2)  = 0.61, p < 0.001). When the effects on both MRI endpoints were included in a multivariate model, the correlation was higher (R(2)  = 0.75, p < 0.001), and both variables were retained as independently related to the treatment effect on disability progression.

INTERPRETATION: In RRMS, the treatment effect on brain atrophy is correlated with the effect on disability progression over 2 years. This effect is independent of the effect of active MRI lesions on disability; the 2 MRI measures predict the treatment effect on disability more closely when used in combination.

CoI: multiple

Beyond NEDA

Prof G are we being lulled into a false sense of security by being told that we have no evident disease activity (NEDA)?

A patient of mine, who I have been looking after now for over 11 years, asked me in clinic a few weeks ago why despite being NEDA for 6 years, on a highly effective maintenance DMT (fingolimod), has she gone from being able to run 5-10 km to needing a stick and barely managing to walk from the Whitechapel Underground Station to my clinic (~200m), without having to stop and rest?

What this patient doesn’t know, despite no new visible T2 lesions, is that she has developed obvious, to the naked eye, progressive brain atrophy.  This particular patient prompted me to write a few blog posts to try and explain what is happening to her brain. Before reading the remainder of this post you may want to read the following posts:

An important question in relation to this patient is why do some DMTs have such a profound impact on end-organ damage markers, in particular, brain volume loss and others do not? Not all DMTs are made equal when it comes to preventing, or slowing down, brain volume loss.

At the top of the league table are alemtuzumab and HSCT (~0.2-0.25% loss per annum). Both these treatments are NIRTs (non-selective immune reconstitution therapies). Natalizumab is next with an annual brain volume loss in region of 0.25-0.30% per annum. Ocrelizumab (anti-CD20) comes fourth with a rate of brain volume loss of ~0.30-0.35% per annum. Fingolimod 5th at ~0.4% per annum. Cladribine has a rate of loss of brain volume of ~0.55% per annum with the other runs after that.

For me, the disappointment are the anti-B cell therapies, ocrelizumab and cladribine. Despite these DMTs being very effective at switching off new focal inflammatory lesions (relapses and new T2 and Gd-enhancing lesions) their impact on end-organ damage is only moderate. These observations have convinced me more than ever that focal inflammation is not MS, but simply the immune system’s response to what is causing MS. The latter hypothesis is what I have been presenting as part of my ‘Field Hypothesis’ for several years on this blog.

What these observations are telling me is that peripheral B-cells are a very important part of the immune response to the cause of MS, but they are not necessarily involved in driving the true pathology, which is causing the progressive brain volume loss. The caveat to this is that anti-CD20 therapies and cladribine may not be eliminating the B-cells and plasma cells within the CNS, which is why we need add-on treatments to try and scrub the brain free of these cells to see if the brain atrophy rate ‘normalises’. This is why we are starting a safety study this year of an add-on myeloma drug to target the CNS B-cell and plasma cell response to test this hypothesis.

What does this mean for the average person with MS? Firstly, you may not want to dismiss alemtuzumab and HSCT as a treatment option. These NIRTS differ from anti-CD20 therapies and cladribine in that they target both B and T cells. We may need to target both these cells types to really get on top of MS. I am aware of the appeal of anti-CD20 therapies and cladribine; they are safer and easier to use because of less monitoring, however, this may come at a cost in the long-term. The SIRTs (selective IRTs) may not be as good as the NEDA data suggests. Please remember that once you have lost brain you can’t get it back.

The tradeoff with alemtuzumab and HSCT is the frontloading of risk to get the greatest efficacy over time. Choosing a DMT on a rung or two down on the therapeutic ladder gives you better short-term safety and makes the lives of your MS team easier, because of less monitoring, but at a potential long-term cost to your brain and spinal cord.  This is why to make an informed decision about which DMT you choose is a very complicated process and subject to subtle and often hidden effects of cognitive biases. The one bias I am very aware of is the ‘Gambler’s Dilemma’, be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security by your beliefs; most gamblers lose.

Over the last few years you may have seen a theme developing in my thinking as we move the goalposts in terms of our treatment target beyond NEDA-3 to target end-organ damage, i.e. brain volume loss, T1 black holes, the slowly expanding lesions (SELs), neurofilament levels, cognition, sickness behaviour, OCBs, etc. Our treatment aim should be to ‘Maximise Brain Health’ across your life and not just the next decade. Please stop and think!

When I was preparing this post I dropped Prof. Doug Arnold an email about the impact of alemtuzumab and HSCT on the slowly expanding lesion or SEL. Unfortunately, these analyses have not been done despite good trial data sets being available for analysis. He said it was a resource issue; i.e. a euphemism for money and permission to do the analyses. For me, these questions are the most important ones to answer in 2019. Wouldn’t you want to know if alemtuzumab and HSCT were able to switch off those destructive SELs in your brain? Knowing this may impact your decision to go for the most effective DMTs; frontloading risk to maximise outcomes in the long term.

What should I advise my patient; to stay on fingolimod or to escalate to a more effective DMT?

The following articles are the important ones for you to read or at least be aware of:

Article 1

Lee et al. Brain atrophy after bone marrow transplantation for treatment of multiple sclerosis. Mult Scler. 2017 Mar;23(3):420-431.

BACKGROUND:  A cohort of patients with poor-prognosis multiple sclerosis (MS) underwent chemotherapy-based immune ablation followed by immune reconstitution with an autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant (IA/aHSCT). This eliminated new focal inflammatory activity, but resulted in early acceleration of brain atrophy.

OBJECTIVE: We modeled the time course of whole-brain volume in 19 patients to identify the baseline predictors of atrophy and to estimate the average rate of atrophy after IA/aHSCT.

METHODS: Percentage whole-brain volume changes were calculated between the baseline and follow-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI; mean duration: 5 years). A mixed-effects model was applied using two predictors: total busulfan dose and baseline volume of T1-weighted white-matter lesions.

RESULTS: Treatment was followed by accelerated whole-brain volume loss averaging 3.3%. Both the busulfan dose and the baseline lesion volume were significant predictors. The atrophy slowed progressively over approximately 2.5 years. There was no evidence that resolution of edema contributed to volume loss. The mean rate of long-term atrophy was -0.23% per year, consistent with the rate expected from normal aging.

CONCLUSION: Following IA/aHSCT, MS patients showed accelerated whole-brain atrophy that was likely associated with treatment-related toxicity and degeneration of “committed” tissues. Atrophy eventually slowed to that expected from normal aging, suggesting that stopping inflammatory activity in MS can reduce secondary degeneration and atrophy.

Article 2

Arnold et al. Superior MRI outcomes with alemtuzumab compared with subcutaneous interferon β-1a in MS. Neurology. 2016 Oct 4;87(14):1464-1472.Neurology. 2016 Oct 4;87(14):1464-1472.

OBJECTIVE: To describe detailed MRI results from 2 head-to-head phase III trials, Comparison of Alemtuzumab and Rebif Efficacy in Multiple Sclerosis Study I (CARE-MS I; NCT00530348) and Study II (CARE-MS II; NCT00548405), of alemtuzumab vs subcutaneous interferon β-1a (SC IFN-β-1a) in patients with active relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

METHODS: The impact of alemtuzumab 12 mg vs SC IFN-β-1a 44 μg on MRI measures was evaluated in patients with RRMS who were treatment-naive (CARE-MS I) or who had an inadequate response, defined as at least one relapse, to prior therapy (CARE-MS II).

RESULTS: Both treatments prevented T2-hyperintense lesion volume increases from baseline. Alemtuzumab was more effective than SC IFN-β-1a on most lesion-based endpoints in both studies (p < 0.05), including decreased risk of new/enlarging T2 lesions over 2 years and gadolinium-enhancing lesions at year 2. Reduced risk of new T1 lesions (p < 0.0001) and gadolinium-enhancing lesion conversion to T1-hypointense black holes (p = 0.0078) were observed with alemtuzumab vs SC IFN-β-1a in CARE-MS II. Alemtuzumab slowed brain volume loss over 2 years in CARE-MS I (p < 0.0001) and II (p = 0.012) vs SC IFN-β-1a.

CONCLUSIONS: Alemtuzumab demonstrated greater efficacy than SC IFN-β-1a on MRI endpoints in active RRMS. The superiority of alemtuzumab was more prominent during the second year of both studies. These findings complement the superior clinical efficacy of alemtuzumab over SC IFN-β-1a in RRMS.

CLINICALTRIALSGOV IDENTIFIER: NCT00530348 and NCT00548405.

CLASSIFICATION OF EVIDENCE: The results reported here provide Class I evidence that, for patients with active RRMS, alemtuzumab is superior to SC IFN-β-1a on multiple MRI endpoints.

Article 3

Vavasour et al. A 24-month advanced magnetic resonance imaging study of multiple sclerosis patients treated with alemtuzumab. Mult Scler. 2018 Apr 1:1352458518770085. doi: 10.1177/1352458518770085.

BACKGROUND: Tissue damage in both multiple sclerosis (MS) lesions and normal-appearing white matter (NAWM) are important contributors to disability and progression. Specific aspects of MS pathology can be measured using advanced imaging. Alemtuzumab is a humanised monoclonal antibody targeting CD52 developed for MS treatment.

OBJECTIVE: To investigate changes over 2 years of advanced magnetic resonance (MR) metrics in lesions and NAWM of MS patients treated with alemtuzumab.

METHODS: A total of 42 relapsing-remitting alemtuzumab-treated MS subjects were scanned for 2 years at 3 T. T1 relaxation, T2relaxation, diffusion tensor, MR spectroscopy and volumetric sequences were performed. Mean T1 and myelin water fraction (MWF) were determined for stable lesions, new lesions and NAWM. Fractional anisotropy was calculated for the corpus callosum (CC) and N-acetylaspartate (NAA) concentration was determined from a large NAWM voxel. Brain parenchymal fraction (BPF), cortical thickness and CC area were also calculated.

RESULTS: No change in any MR measurement was found in lesions or NAWM over 24 months. BPF, cortical thickness and CC area all showed decreases in the first year followed by stability in the second year.

CONCLUSION: Advanced MR biomarkers of myelin (MWF) and neuron/axons (NAA) show no change in NAWM over 24 months in alemtuzumab-treated MS participants.

CoI: multiple

What is happening to my cortex?

A very common analogy is the comparison of MS to an iceberg. Why?

Only one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water; to see what is below the water line requires specialised technology. The MS iceberg analogy refers to several observations:

1. For each clinical relapse, 10 or more MRI visible lesions are seen on MRI.
2. For each visible white matter lesions on MRI, there are at least an equivalent number or more grey matter lesions. In fact, it is now estimated that more than half the MS pathology is in the grey matter.
3. For every visible white matter lesion, either on MRI or with the naked eye, there are 20 or more microscopic lesions present in the white matter.
4. Despite only a relatively small amount of brain or spinal cord atrophy, there is almost three times as much neuronal loss underlying the atrophy.
5. Despite a relatively good recovery of function in a particular pathway, for example, after a relapse, there is a substantial loss of axons and hence reserve capacity in that pathway.
6. People with MS have many more hidden symptoms and disabilities than visible physical disabilities; early MS is often a hidden disease.

When you use newer technologies, for example, a 7 Tesla MRI to look at cortical or grey matter lesions in MS you begin to see how large the iceberg really is. Please remember the vast majority of cortical MS lesions (>90%) or not seen with conventional MRI. The bad news in the study below is that almost all the pwMS studied had cortical lesions and these, not surprisingly, correlated with disability and cognitive impairment. What is interesting is that the lesions on the surface of the brain (subpial), but not those on the grey-white matter interface (leukocortical), correlated better with cortical volume. However, the grey-white matter interface, or leukocortical, lesions correlated most strongly with cognitive impairment.  

What is becoming increasingly important is to try and target the grey matter pathology and prevent cognitive impairment in pwMS. The problem is we don’t routinely monitor brain and in particular grey matter atrophy in routine clinical practice; in fact it is largely ignored. If we did we would probably find many more pwMS opting for the higher efficacy treatments that have the greatest impact on brain atrophy (alemtuzumab and HSCT).

It is important for you to realise that you can be NEDA-3, i.e. no clinical attacks and MRI activity, and still have progressive grey matter atrophy. Why this is happening is debatable. Some evidence points to immunoglobulins and complement activation, rather than cytotoxic T-cells, being the major driver of cortical pathology. This why Barts-MS is exploring add-on drugs that will hopefully target the B-cell follicles and plasma cells within the central nervous system to try and slow down this process. We plan to start recruiting for our add-on study later this year.

I have little doubt that slowing down and preventing progressive brain and grey matter atrophy will become one of the treatment targets for the next generation of MSologists. To make this a reality we need to have tools to measure these processes reliably in clinical practice.

Harrison et al. Association of Cortical Lesion Burden on 7-T Magnetic Resonance Imaging With Cognition and Disability in Multiple Sclerosis. JAMA Neurol. 2015 Jul 20. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2015.1241.

IMPORTANCE: Cortical lesions (CLs) contribute to physical and cognitive disability in multiple sclerosis (MS). Accurate methods for visualization of CLs are necessary for future clinical studies and therapeutic trials in MS.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the clinical relevance of measures of CL burden derived from high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in MS.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: An observational clinical imaging study was conducted at an academic MS center. Participants included 36 individuals with MS (30 relapsing-remitting, 6 secondary or primary progressive) and 15 healthy individuals serving as controls. The study was conducted from March 10, 2010, to November 23, 2012, and analysis was performed from June 1, 2011, to September 30, 2014. Seven-Tesla MRI of the brain was performed with 0.5-mm isotropic resolution magnetization-prepared rapid acquisition gradient echo (MPRAGE) and whole-brain, 3-dimensional, 1.0-mm isotropic resolution magnetization-prepared, fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (MPFLAIR). Cortical lesions, seen as hypointensities on MPRAGE, were manually segmented. Lesions were classified as leukocortical, intracortical, or subpial. Images were segmented using the Lesion-TOADS (Topology-Preserving Anatomical Segmentation) algorithm, and brain structure volumes and white matter (WM) lesion volume were reported. Volumes were normalized to intracranial volume.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Physical disability was measured by the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). Cognitive disability was measured with the Minimal Assessment of Cognitive Function in MS battery.

RESULTS: Cortical lesions were noted in 35 of 36 participants (97%), with a median of 16 lesions per participant (range, 0-99). Leukocortical lesion volume correlated with WM lesion volume (ρ = 0.50; P = .003) but not with cortical volume; subpial lesion volume inversely correlated with cortical volume (ρ = -0.36; P = .04) but not with WM lesion volume. Total CL count and volume, measured as median (range), were significantly increased in participants with EDSS scores of 5.0 or more vs those with scores less than 5.0 (count: 29 [11-99] vs 13 [0-51]; volume: 2.81 × 10-4 [1.30 × 10-4 to 7.90 × 10-4] vs 1.50 × 10-4 [0 to 1.01 × 10-3]) and in cognitively impaired vs unimpaired individuals (count: 21 [0-99] vs 13 [1-54]; volume: 3.51 × 10-4 [0 to 1.01 × 10-4] vs 1.19 × 10-4 [0 to 7.17 × 10-4]). Cortical lesion volume correlated with EDSS scores more robustly than did WM lesion volume (ρ = 0.59 vs 0.36). Increasing log[CL volume] conferred a 3-fold increase in the odds of cognitive impairment (odds ratio [OR], 3.36; 95% CI, 1.07-10.59; P = .04) after adjustment for age and sex and a 14-fold increase in odds after adjustment for WM lesion volume and atrophy (OR, 14.26; 95% CI, 1.06-192.37; P = .045). Leukocortical lesions had the greatest effect on cognition (OR for log [leukocortical lesion volume], 9.65; 95% CI, 1.70-54.59, P = .01).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: This study provides in vivo evidence that CLs are associated with cognitive and physical disability in MS and that leukocortical and subpial lesion subtypes have differing clinical relevance. Quantitative assessments of CL burden on high-field MRI may further our understanding of the development of disability and progression in MS and lead to more effective treatments.

CoI: multiple

Smouldering MS: does it exist?

… by taking an MRI-centric view of MS we may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. … an MRI worldview of MS has framed, and continues to frame, our perspective of MS and has created a cognitive bias.

I have recently posted on why you can have MS and have a normal MRI or a very low lesion load. I made the point that MS is a biological disease and not an MRIscopic disease, i.e. what you see on MRI is the tip of the tip of the iceberg and that most of MS pathology is hidden from view with conventional MRI. To capture this pathology we need to use unconventional imaging techniques or look at end-organ damage markers, i.e. whole brain, or preferably grey matter, volume loss or atrophy. Another option is serial CSF or possibly peripheral blood neurofilament levels. At least the end-organ damage markers will capture the end-result of MS pathology; the loss of neurones and axons.

In another recent blog post, I explained how someone with MS can still be deteriorating despite being NEDA (no evident disease activity). The NEDA here is referring to focal MS inflammatory activity, i.e. relapse(s) and new or enlarging lesions on MRI. The biology behind this worsening despite being NEDA could be driven by the delayed neuroaxonal loss from previous damage, ongoing diffuse inflammation which has become independent of focal lesions (innate activation), ageing mechanisms or focal inflammatory lesions that are too small to be detected with our monitoring tools. Of all the processes listed here, the last one is the only one that is modifiable by our current DMTs. Therefore I think we should reserve the term smouldering MS to this process, i.e. one that is modifiable by current DMTs.

The really important question this raises is when you treat someone a DMT and they become NEDA how do you know they don’t have smouldering MS and would benefit from being escalated to a more effective DMT? One commentator asked specifically about cladribine.

‘If a patient was treated with cladribine and was rendered relapse and MRI activity free how can we be sure that this patient did not have smouldering MS?’

This is why we need to start using end-organ damage markers and more sensitive inflammatory markers to look for and define smouldering MS. We may then be able to answer this question. However, this won’t necessarily tell us if escalating people with smouldering MS to more effective DMTs, for example, natalizumab, alemtuzumab or ocrelizumab will result in them doing better than them simply waiting for their smouldering MS to become overtly active MS before making a switch in their treatment.

A point has been made that primary progressive MS (PPMS) is simply smouldering RRMS and that all we are doing with our DMTs is converting people with RRMS to PPMS and delaying the inevitable progressive phase of the disease.  I don’t buy this because a proportion of pwMS who have been treated early on with an immune reconstitution therapy or IRT in particular with alemtuzumab or HSCT appear to be in very longterm remission and may even be cured of their MS (please read my previous post on this topic). Some would argue, I included, that this group of patients has not been followed up for long enough to be sure they have been cured. I agree with you and this is why I have proposed doing a deep phenotyping study to assess whether or not these patients have any evidence of ongoing MS disease activity. This study would help define smouldering MS, by looking for its absence.

What this post is telling me is that by taking an MRI-centric view of MS we may have lulled ourselves into a false sense of security. In other words, an MRI worldview of MS has framed, and continues to frame, our perspective of MS and has created a cognitive bias. Dare I call it an MRIscopic bias?