Do you have progressive MS; is your MS salvageable?

Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer: ★★★★★
Another Jazzy Blues Saturday #163780 (VW’s code)

As you are aware Professor Alan Thompson was awarded the Charcot prize from ECTRIMS this year. The award recognised his long and illustrious career in the field of MS and in particular his contribution to the study of progressive MS.  However, Professor Thompson’s final message in his Charcot Lecture  – Progressive multiple sclerosis – a personal perspective – ‘that once you have clinically manifest progressive MS with disability the therapeutic window has probably shut’ has had some blowback on social media. 

His final message may dampen the spirits of many of you living with progressive MS and challenges some of the research we are involved in. 

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I was personally disappointed that he did not mention Kurtzke’s length-dependent axonopathy hypothesis and the rationale for multiple therapeutic windows in MS, which we recently resurrected as a concept. It is because MS is a central length-dependent axonopathy that we have therapeutic lag and why we highlighted arm and hand function in pwMS in our #ThinkHand campaign and why we are doing the CHARIOT-MSORATORIO-HAND and UNDER&OVER trials. In short, we have hypothesised that it is never too late to modify the course of MS.

A few years ago during the #ThinkHand campaign one of my colleagues presented a patient who was had advanced MS (EDSS 7.5 = wheelchair-bound) who was still on interferon-beta. In keeping with NHS England guidelines, she had to stop treating this patient with interferon-beta. Three months later this patient presented with double-vision due to a brain-stem relapse. An MRI with contrast showed multiple Gd-enhancing lesions indicative of reactivation of MS disease activity, or rebound, post-interferon-beta. As this patient was not eligible to be restarted on a licensed DMT, we at the MDT recommended that the patient be offered off-label treatment with generic subcutaneous cladribine. Our position was that although the patient may be wheelchair-bound with advanced MS, she still had upper limb (arm & hand) and bulbar (swallowing and speech) function to preserve. Were we wrong to treat this patient and assume that the therapeutic window to modify her disease course has shut? This patient is not unique and almost every MS expert will have similar cases. 

As a result of these and other insights we are challenging the NHS England DMT stopping criteria, are proposing a randomised controlled trial to evaluate whether or not MS is modifiable in the population of patients who have to stop their licensed DMT.  Are these ‘unsalvageables’ salvageable? 

In short, we propose randomising pwMS who are forced to stop their existing DMT to treatment with possible generic cladribine or placebo with the primary outcome being NEDA or disease progression as defined using upper limb function, i.e. the 9-hole peg test. The plan is to make this an event-driven trial and if someone reaches the study end-point they can be unblinded and offered a course of cladribine if they were previously treated with placebo. If they had broken through on cladribine they could be offered a further course of treatment or another off-label salvage therapy, for example, rituximab biosimilar. 

Instead of assuming MS is not modifiable beyond a certain stage should we not at least try and salvage upper limb function in people with more advanced MS?

The real question is do we have the equipoise to do this study? Please note that in a small French study, stopping DMTs in pwSPMS, 35% of the cohort had relapses, or MRI activity, in the follow-up period (~5 years). Similarly, in the MS-BASE study below, of 485 DMT-stoppers vs. 854 DMT-stayers followed for at least 3-years, time to confirm disability progression was significantly shorter among DMT stoppers than stayers. The data from these two studies would indicate that we should ignore NHS England because their stopping criteria are not evidence-based and give the patient the option of stopping their DMT or continuing with it. What do you think? 

Length-dependent axonopathy

Giovannoni et al. Is multiple sclerosis a length-dependent central axonopathy? The case for therapeutic lag and the asynchronous progressive MS hypotheses. Review Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2017 Feb;12:70-78.

Trials of anti-inflammatory therapies in non-relapsing progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) have been stubbornly negative except recently for an anti-CD20 therapy in primary progressive MS and an S1P modulator siponimod in secondary progressive MS. We argue that this might be because trials have been too short and have focused on assessing neuronal pathways, with insufficient reserve capacity, as the core component of the primary outcome. Delayed neuroaxonal degeneration primed by prior inflammation is not expected to respond to disease-modifying therapies targeting MS-specific mechanisms. However, anti-inflammatory therapies may modify these damaged pathways, but with a therapeutic lag that may take years to manifest. Based on these observations we propose that clinically apparent neurodegenerative components of progressive MS may occur in a length-dependent manner and asynchronously. If this hypothesis is confirmed it may have major implications for the future design of progressive MS trials.

French Study

Bonenfant et al. Can we stop immunomodulatory treatments in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis? Eur J Neurol. 2016. doi: 10.1111/ene.13181

BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: The benefits of immunomodulatory treatments in secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS) are unclear, calling into question their continuation. In the present observational study, we investigated the effect of treatment withdrawal on the clinical course of SPMS.

METHODS: We included 100 consecutive patients with SPMS who regularly attended our multiple sclerosis clinic. Inclusion criteria were (i) secondary progressive phenotype for at least 2 years, (ii) immunomodulatory treatment for at least 6 months and (iii) treatment stopped with no plans to switch to another. Clinical and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data before and after treatment discontinuation were assessed. Factors associated with relapses and/or MRI activity were identified.

RESULTS: Mean treatment duration was 60.4 ± 39.3 months, and mean follow-up duration after treatment withdrawal was 62.4 ± 38.4 months. The annualized relapse rate remained stable at 1 and 3 years after treatment withdrawal [0.09, 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.05-0.17 and 0.07, 95% CI, 0.05-0.11, respectively], relative to the 3 years prior to treatment withdrawal (0.12, 95% CI, 0.09-0.16). Sixteen patients experienced a relapse and 19 had a gadolinium-positive MRI scan without relapse during follow-up. A gadolinium-positive MRI scan within the previous 3 years before treatment withdrawal and Expanded Disability Status Scale score of <6 were positively associated with relapse and/or MRI activity after discontinuation (P = 0.0004 and P = 0.03, respectively).

CONCLUSION: In this retrospective study, including a limited number of patients with SPMS, the annualized relapse rate remained stable after treatment withdrawal, relative to before treatment withdrawal. Further prospective studies are needed to confirm this result and provide evidence-based guidelines for daily practice.

MS-BASE STUDY

Kister et al. Discontinuing disease-modifying therapy in MS after a prolonged relapse-free period: a propensity score-matched study. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2016 Oct;87(10):1133-7.

BACKGROUND:  Discontinuation of injectable disease-modifying therapy (DMT) for multiple sclerosis (MS) after a long period of relapse freedom is frequently considered, but data on post-cessation disease course are lacking.

OBJECTIVES: (1) To compare time to first relapse and disability progression among ‘DMT stoppers’ and propensity-score matched ‘DMT stayers’ in the MSBase Registry; (2) To identify predictors of time to first relapse and disability progression in DMT stoppers.

METHODS: Inclusion criteria for DMT stoppers were: age ≥18 years; no relapses for ≥5 years at DMT discontinuation; follow-up for ≥3 years after stopping DMT; not restarting DMT for ≥3 months after discontinuation. DMT stayers were required to have no relapses for ≥5 years at baseline, and were propensity-score matched to stoppers for age, sex, disability (Expanded Disability Status Score), disease duration and time on treatment. Relapse and disability progression events in matched stoppers and stayers were compared using a marginal Cox model. Predictors of first relapse and disability progression among DMT stoppers were investigated using a Cox proportional hazards model.

RESULTS: Time to first relapse among 485 DMT stoppers and 854 stayers was similar (adjusted HR, aHR=1.07, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.37; p=0.584), while time to confirmed disability progression was significantly shorter among DMT stoppers than stayers (aHR=1.47, 95% CI 1.18 to 1.84, p=0.001). The difference in hazards of progression was due mainly to patients who had not experienced disability progression in the prebaseline treatment period.

CONCLUSIONS: Patients with MS who discontinued injectable DMT after a long period of relapse freedom had a similar relapse rate as propensity score-matched patients who continued on DMT, but higher hazard for disability progression.

Conflicts of Interest

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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 and are not meant to be interpreted as personal clinical advice. 

Under&Over: we need your help

Since being hit by a motorbike travelling at high speed and nearly losing my life or independence I now have personal experience of the value of physical neurorehabilitation. When I say #UseItOrLoseIt I really mean it. So if you have more advanced MS and are using a walking stick (EDSS 6.0) we want you to enrol in a #CitizenScience type study in which we are testing a new hand and arm activity called Under&Over to see if it can improve or maintain upper limb function. The study is titled: “Under & Over: A controlled study to develop an upper limb rehabilitation tool for people with Multiple Sclerosis.”

The Under&Over project is an extension of our #ThinkHand campaign, i.e. you are never too disabled to be treated with DMT and we are doing the O’HAND (ORATORIO-HAND) and CHARIOT-MS studies to test ocrelizumab and oral cladribine in people with more advanced MS with the primary outcome being the 9-hole peg test; an outcome measure of upper limb function. Under&Over is simply a form of upper limb exercise. However, to get the MS community to accept arm and hand rehabilitation as a treatment we need evidence from a controlled study. So without volunteers, without you, we won’t be able to generate the evidence to prove that we can protect upper limb function with exercise.

This study is now recruiting – find out more information on the study website.

This is part of our ThinkHand project which addresses the need for more resources, research and services to support upper limb function.

What is the purpose of the study?

The research is designed to find out whether repeated use of the Under & Over tool (pictured above) can improve upper limb function in people with MS. It is also designed to gather information about the long term use of the tool based on participants’ experiences and the use of a digital platform and community integration to support this.

Who can take part?

Men and women over 18 years can take part if:

  • You have a diagnosis of MS (more than 6 months)
  • You have internet access
  • You have an Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) score of ≥6 as measured using the online WebEDSS
  • You understand and able to communicate in English

You will not be Eligible to take part if:

  • You are unable to use your hands because of pain or any other reason that might interfere with your ability to complete the intervention using the Under & Over device.

It is a fully remote study, so there are no clinical visits or examinations. All study resources are online or will be posted to your home. You just need to live in the UK.

A number of baseline questionnaires will gather initial data that we will compare with the same data gathered at the end of the study (cardboard 9 Hole Peg test, WebEDSS, ABILHAND questionnaire, MSIF and MSIS-29).

Following baseline assessments, everyone who agrees to take part in this study will be randomly assigned to one of two groups; one group will receive immediate intervention and the other group will receive the delayed intervention; this is called the wait-list control group. This means that they will receive access to the rehabilitation programme after a 3-month period.  This way everyone who participates in the study will eventually get access to the rehabilitation programme.

Contact for further information about the study:

If you would like further information, answer to any questions or queries and would like to express interest to take part please contact the Under & Over Research Team (underandover@qmul.ac.uk) and read the participant information on the study website.

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