(all photos by Jennifer Chase)
I was chosen as a patient fellow for the ALS/MND International Symposium in Boston in early December. I was looking forward to learning a lot and meeting researchers and the other patient fellows.
The day before we were going to fly across the country to Boston, my husband, Stan, was hospitalized with life threatening septic shock. This forced me to cancel my trip to the conference.
But through social media and the ALS/MND International Symposium phone app, I got a message from a woman named Jennifer Chase, who has the C9ORF72 gene mutation like me. Jennifer lost her mom (who had FTD then ALS) and sister to ALS and her sister was one one of the first commercially tested patients confirmed to have the C9ORF72 gene. Jennifer is a brave sister in that she decided to get tested herself. She does have the gene mutation and has been learning all she could since finding out and she has been participating in research studies. She was attending the meeting on her own and she agreed to send me photos and updates. I appreciate her so much because she allowed me to learn through her eyes. What follows is a summary of the updates she sent me.
There was a display of ALS/MND patients from all represented countries, including the awesome Osiel Mendoza from the USA.
Jennifer also sent me a photo of the registration swag.
And now her report on the first day:
The Opening keynote speaker, Dr. Jeffery Rosenfeld from Loma Linda University, spoke about the need for a new paradigm: the need to define and stratify as done in MS, epilepsy, and headache. Even if lines are drawn wrong at first it’s time to start. He also said that biomarkers are what need to be tracked in clinical trials. The patient’s functional rating scale (FRS) doesn’t give results quickly enough.
Then there were awards:
- Humanitarian award to the guys that started the ice bucket challenge – Anthony Senerchia, Jr. (awarded posthumously), Patrick Quinn, and Pete Frates. Pete’s mom Nancy accepted the award.
- Forbes Norris Award to Dr. Merit Cudkowicz of Massachusetts General Hospital (and Jennifer’s neurologist) for her passion in researching and caring for patients with ALS and finding the cure.
- The Paulo Gontijo Research Award to Marta Van Blitterswijk, MD, Ph.D of the Mayo Clinic in Florida for her work attempting to understand the variability among patients with ALS, including age at which it starts, presence of dementia, diesease progression and survival. Most of her patient centered work has focused on the C9ORF72 mutation.
Then Jennifer sent me this photo of ALS TDI researchers. The two on the right are working on C9ORF72 research
She said the rest of the morning was good, although nothing specific to C9 was covered. The Symposium registration was the highest ever – 1281. The scientific sessions were packed. She even saw people on chairs outside the rooms. She said she thought there were slightly more people with ALS there than 2 years ago.
The first afternoon session had a lot about the nuclear pore membrane and C9ORF72. One of the sessions was about SRSF1 (a protein coding gene and nuclear export adaptor) and C9 as a potential way to block the deleterious C9 while allowing the good C9 to work. They are looking at three potential approaches in fruit flies.
She walked through the posters not during the poster session, because of being too tired – I know I would have been exhausted . She noted one that described ALS as the nice person’s disease, and the poster said it looks like some truth to that because the characteristics that make people with ALS nice may be associated with risk factors in lifestyle and occupation.
She went to the clinical trials session on Friday afternoon.
- Mastinab – normal progressors with less than a 1.1 decline on their FSR showed a slowing of decline at highest dose. There are reports of study irregularities though.
- Tirasemtiv failed but a related drug is still in trial.
- Ibudilast – Jennifer said it was confusing. She said they are hoping it slows FSR decline but it needs more study.
Moving on to the Saturday morning session, there was a hopeful presentation on a mechanism to help drugs bypass the blood brain barrier.
She said the biggest deal was Frank Bennett who is Vice President of Research for Ionis, in Carlsbad, CA, which is one of two companies developing the antisense drug. It is already being tested on ALS patients with the first gene defect identified – SOD1 and Bennett said the trial is going well. He also showed a video of kids with Spinal Muscle Atrophy who have been treated and the results were amazing – they were able to meet developmental milestones that untreated patients never could.
Another takeaway was from a presentation from Dr. Michael Benatar of the University of Miami who has been doing pre-familial ALS research – there may be a biomarker sometime that can detect disease before it is obvious clinically which would be a window for treatment for carriers. That would be very exciting.
C9 ALS normally has an average progression rate, but there are subsets – one where there is little progression for years (10 or more years) and another subset where progression is brutally fast. The doctor who was doing extensive genotyping discovered that these brutally fast progressors have a “rare deleterious variant” of the C9 mutation – they all died within a year.
Jennifer also went to Dr. Nick Maragakis’ presentation on excersise. She said basically supervised exercise (stretching, resistance, or cardio) did not hurt the study group but it not help ALS either. But I know from experience that exercise can help quality of life.
Then on to Sunday, the last day. She said there was lots on basic C9 research. Dr. Marka Van Blitterswelk (who won the research award) spoke about her findings on post mortem studies of C9 FTD with and without ALS. It was all good science and increased understanding. This work could not have been completed without the brave C9 patients who donated their brains, and their brave families.
Dr. Nazem Atassi presented on a PET MRI study which is not C9 specific but he thinks it can be used for smaller, faster phase 1 and 2 trials because it has a strong signal.
The closing session speaker was Dr. Robert Brown, of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, MA, who has been studying ALS with a special interest in genetics for a long time. He said the C9 antisense trial will be coming up in late 2018 (although I have since heard it may be sooner, and I hope to participate).
I had two comments from family caregivers from my blog requests before the conference.
The first one is from the sister of an ALS patient in California. He was diagnosed in March with familial ALS. After finally getting approved for Radicava he changed his mind so he could apply for the Nurown Phase 3 stem cell trial, and one of the requirements was to not be taking Radicava in the 30 last days. His breathing is also declining quickly and he won’t qualify for the trial if his breathing is below 60 percent Forced Vital Capacity. His sister would like to see changes in trial criteria. Why should a patient have to give up a promising treatment to participate in research? Of course trials are controlled scientific studies but it can lead to very frustrated patients and families.
I too have had frustrations with clinical trials. Many of them exclude patients with feeding tubes. That makes me think that the drug being tested might not be available to patients with feeding tubes.
Cathy Collet, a patient fellow committee member, reported that neurologists are skeptical about Radicava’s efficacy because of the small clinical trial, but glad to have it in their tool bag. I am taking a break from Radicava treatment to sort out unwanted side effects or whatever is causing my sinus problem.
The next comment was from the daughter of an elderly ALS patient in Canada. She is frustrated by the lack of studies on geriatric patients, and the tools to explain feeding tubes and suction to an 88-year-old. She also has observed that weight loss and slurred speech in the elderly is usually attributed to stroke. Cathy Collet said there was no mention of diagnosis in the elderly, and that is near and dear to her heart because her mother was diagnosed in her 70’s. It is an issue that sorely needs to be addressed.
I am sorry that I was not able to attend but I am so appreciative of Jennifer and Cathy for sharing information.
(Meg published this blog post on her own blog as well at alteringlifespectations.com)