A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part III

Catching up?

Post-Baseline

Nothing much changed in the first two weeks. Of course, I was expecting NOTHING to change, I was convinced I would “win” the placebo arm. I still might be on the placebo: psorasis and psoratic arthritis are funny conditions, they can go on holidays and they can roam around your body.

By week three my skin was starting to look different – but then again I see my skin every day, it is hard to detect subtle changes. Work colleagues mentioned my upper chest looked less angry. This was interesting, as it fitted with my own thoughts.

However, my boobs were itching me. I don’t just mean a little itch, I mean if I could have, I’d have divorced my boobs. Let me put that in context: I’ve always considered my boobs a better anatomical feature than my legs. If the choice was between a long but low cut dress versus a short dress with a high neckline, the long, low cut dress won every time. But I was ready to get rid of them, especially at night.

On the plus side however, I was sleeping slightly better. Although psoriatic arthritis is a systemic condition known to affect other organs, you will rarely, if ever, find urological symptoms mentioned. Yet after a lifetime of sleeping a sound, uninterrupted eight hours a night, I started waking frequently. This was SUPER ANNOYING! Also the disrupted sleep doesn’t help fatigue levels. Ah, you see – THAT’S why I slotted in that fatigue article! By Week 4 I was not waking as often – this mirrored my experience on methotrexate. In discussions with my GP and urologist, we agreed perhaps this was linked and we would take a wait and see approach in regard to urology.

Loading Dose

Week 4 is the loading dose of the ….. well we don’t know do we? Whatever I got on Day 1, I got again Week 4. After this, it is administered quarterly, with the exception of some tricky machinations at the six month mark as the placebo arm participants are switched over to the active arm, in order to ensure the secrecy is maintained.

The details of the day are pretty much the same as baseline, with the following variations:

  • The iPad questionnaire isn’t as long
  • Only have to wait one hour, not two in case of an adverse reaction

My skin involvement was assessed at a lower coverage percentage than at baseline.

We did discuss the itching and decided on trying the old staple of calamine lotion. It sort of helped.

Post-Loading Dose

  • By Week 6 my skin was 100% clear. Not 95%, not 90%. 100% clear.
  • My ankles were no longer painful.
  • My thumbs were no longer painful.
  • I was sleeping from 10:30 pm to approximately 5:30 am most nights.
  • I could wear my runners ALL DAY!
  • I remembered a 6 digit number for a whole 10 minutes without trying!

I am pretty darn pleased about all of the above. The boobs were still itchy, but it was subsiding, thankfully.

Remembering that number was so fantastic (to me) I emailed the clinical trial co-ordinator to tell her! I was in a meeting at the time and I was clearly excited. I was ecstatic! I have written before about brain fog – like fatigue, it is something many chronic illness patients battle with. I will write again soon, in a different context, about brain fog. I have to say, this sort of detail is not considered important to the trial powers that be in that far, far away place. But to ME? Wonderful!

Am I tempted to think I actually won the lottery and got the active intervention? The skin improvement is pretty indicative. I am seeing my dermatologist next week for a pre-planned check-up so it will be interesting to see his reaction. After all, he knows more about the behaviour of psoriasis than I do.

Week 8

Week 8 is a check-up visit, quite short. Very quick iPad questionnaire, temperature and BP, bloods (no urine unless you could be pregnant, so I’m safe from that one). Discussion of has the participant had any changes to anything, such as needed to see a GP, had any antibiotics been prescribed, any adverse events, any concerns. Consultation with a doctor and the joint and enthesitis assessments.

I asked about my CRP results from Week 4. Lowest it has ever been since 2014.

My skin was formally assessed at 0% coverage. ZERO! *participant does little happy dance* We discuss the ongoing, although much reduced, itchiness of the boobs. Suspect it may be a sign of healing, such as experienced after sunburn. Sounds reasonable to me.

My thumbs, while not sore in daily use at all now, do still react when clinically assessed. The ankles no longer do. Shoulders and all those darn toe joints still react. It sounded as if less were assessed as swollen, but honestly, without the paperwork, it is hard to keep track. To me some felt less sore than last time, but they were still sore. Still lots of “ouch” from me.

My left foot is still slightly swollen overall, but being able to wear my runners for a whole day is blissful. Means I can walk further for longer, go to the gym, exercise normally.

That’s it. Home time. Not even a coffee (very disappointing).

Now, I could share a photo of the same patches of skin as I shared in Part II but there is no point – it is just clear, bare skin – there is nothing to see other than healthy skin. Not even, which surprised the assessor, any hyperpigmentation marks. My nails have not improved in the same dramatic way as my skin, however I expect that the nail damage likely has to grow out. It has never been bad, I have been lucky, so I’m not concerned.

For the first time in my adult life I am NOT battling to control a flaky scalp. Even my hairdresser was impressed!

This is a four year drug trial. From here on in, my trial updates will be quarterly, unless anything unexpected eventuates. I’m getting back to exercise related articles!

In summary, yes, based on my skin improvement alone, it does appear I may have won the placebo versus active lottery. Placebo effect in the psorasis clinical trials was very low. However, I am reluctant to count my chickens before they hatch. I am still on a low dose of a DMARD – that could have contributed (unlikely based on my discussions with doctors unrelated to the trial). So now I wait and see. If my toes improve over the next few monthly assessments (I attend monthly until March 2020, thereafter quarterly) I will be ecstatic. In fact, simply no disease progression (i.e. not getting worse) will be perfectly fine!

How Do You Find A Clinical Trial?

If, having read this far, you wonder if there may be a clinical trial for you, I have to say finding one can be quite difficult. It took me months. There are, quite sensibly, ethics rules and regulations around recruitment of participants. The patient really has to be the one to initiate the contact, to reach out. Most of the big public hospitals and universities will be running trials and have trial participant registries – at one stage I registered with Monash, for example. You will notice promoted posts on Facebook and other social media announcing clinical trials.

There is the Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry, where you can search for registered trials. The search feature is intuitive and simple, a sample result is shown below.

There is the government web site, Australian Clinical Trials. I found the search feature on this web site extremely difficult to use and not remotely intuitive. As it is sourcing all data from the above ANZCTR database, just use the ANZCTR.

Research4Me is an organisation that works in this space. I quote from the website: “Reliable information and access to opportunities to take part in and contribute to clinical trials should be available to everyone. People deserve the right to a choice as to whether a clinical trial is an option they’d like to try, or help improve.” I met the founder of Research4Me, Janelle Bowden, at the ARCS conference in August. 

Last, but by no means least: where am I doing my trial?

Emeritus Research. If you are interested, visit the website, check their Currently Recruiting page, drop them a line.

Emeritus Research are extremely professional, yet at the same time the participant feels almost like family. It is a very supportive and safe environment. I am very happy. They also have a great sense of humour, which I really like – laughter is the best medicine, after all. This is an Emeritus Research Instagram post, which appeared shortly before my loading dose appointment. NOT the word I wanted to hear at the time, but I couldn’t help but laugh.

A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part II

I mentioned at the end of A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part I that I had originally planned not to share my experience until after the placebo arm was over. On reflection, I realised that would in fact be unintentionally biased reporting, because events during, and the experience of, that first six months, when I may or may not be on the active intervention, are valid when discussing clinical trials from a patient perspective.

I had convinced myself I would get the placebo. I do not have a history of winning at chance! The lottery? Yeah, nah. Raffles? Not a hope. Scratchies (are they still a thing)? Never! I did once win $100 in a work event of some sort, but that is hardly indicative of a great winning streak. Psychologically, it is easier to plan on having a further toughish six months than be disappointed if nothing happens. Makes sense, I think!

In Part I, I also mentioned I thought I may get an early indication based on any skin improvement. This graph is from psoriasis clinical trials.

Source: http://www.medicines.org.au/files/vepskyri.pdf

As can be seen from the above, results in the skin trials were seen very quickly. Although the trial in which I am participating is for the arthritic condition, the skin condition will also be treated.

Let’s pick up where we left off, at the baseline visit.

Baseline

After dealing with all the paperwork, doctor consultation, having bloods and urine taken, temperature and blood pressure checked, joint and enthesitis assessment and answering a lengthy quality of life type questionnaire on an iPad, it was time for the injections. I remember watching it go in (yes, I watch injections, apologies to squeamish readers) and thinking, “There’s my saline solution dose for the day”. One into the abdomen, one into the thigh.

From November 2018, I had been having UV B light therapy for the psoriasis. It really works well, but one of the criteria of the trial is no light therapy. Makes sense – the aim is to test the efficacy of the drug and that would be most difficult if certain other therapies (see explanatory comment below) were being employed at the same time. So I had to stop light therapy a specific period of time prior to the baseline visit.

The following two photos I took July 6. While with UV B and methotrexate it had reduced dramatically, once off both those therapies the skin had flared again. My baseline visit was July 17. I’d stopped the UV B therapy a little earlier than I otherwise would have, because I’d stopped in preparation for one trial, then ended up on the sister trial with a later start date.

These photos are embarrassing to share, nor are they anything like “clinical quality” as I just snapped them with my phone, but they are more meaningful that quoting percentages. If my articles are to be useful to readers, I have to be prepared to drop the mask of normality so many of us wear a lot of the time. I wanted my own baseline for comparison. We forget how things looked, over time: I wanted to be able to look at my skin further down the line on the trial and be able to see (or not see) any change. As this trial is for psoriatic arthritis, not psoriasis, no photos are part of the trial documentation.

The image on the left is a patch on my leg. The image on the right is my upper chest, just below the collar bone. You can see older images of my arm on “I am Medication Free! For Now, Anyway…

The skin makes swimming and hydrotherapy embarrassing. Rightly or wrongly, I worry other swimmers are going to think I’m contagious. It just looks…..horrid. Worth mentioning, perhaps, this sort of skin involvement is new to me – when I say new, I mean I went through MANY years of my life with the odd tiny patch which would disappear, or absolutely none. I am not used to this.

I’ve shared this swollen foot photo before, this was February, just as DMARD number two washed out of my system. This is the psoriatic arthritis aspect. The right second toe is clearly also swollen – dactylitis. Yes, you may indeed compliment me on my choice of polish!

The joint and enthesitis assessment is quite lengthy because it involves an independent assessor testing the many finger and toe joints as well as, jaw (TMJ), feet, elbows, shoulders, sternum, knees and hips (SIJ). It seems as if, if you have a joint, they will assess it! I never think of my toes being sore, aside from the big toes, yet it is surprising just how sore they are when a relatively light test pressure is applied. I knew my thumbs were sore, but all those toe joints: ouch, ouch, ouch.  My fingers, aside from the thumbs, are OK. Even the thumbs are not bad – the soreness doesn’t stop me doing anything AT THIS TIME: however my concern is disease progression. I want, if at all possible, to stop progression.

The assessor also looks at and records the percentage of the body showing skin involvement.

At the point of the above photo, I could not fit my runners on at all – that makes exercise difficult as the gym frown on bare feet for safety reasons. The swelling had reduced a bit by July, but I was still struggling to wear runners for any length of time. The assessor, using a clinical approach rather than my layperson’s visual assessment, flagged many of my toe joints as swollen as well as sore. We get used to looking at our own bits and pieces and over time the abnormal can start to look normal.

Which injections you get is controlled by a mysterious person far, far away. To that mysterious person I am just a number. My co-ordinator emails the mysterious person, who I suspect at baseline tosses a coin to decide which arm I’m in: active or placebo. Of course I am joking – it is likely much more scientific than that. Now I’m curious – I must ask next visit!

An email comes back advising which two numbered boxes are to be used for my participant number. I wanted to keep the boxes as souvenirs (main photo) but they have to be kept for the trial auditors to check I was given what I was supposed to be given.

None of us, the investigator, or my co-ordinator, or I know what is in those syringes. It is a 50/50 lottery at baseline.

After the injections the trial participant (i.e. me) sits around for two hours in case of an adverse reaction.

Take a book or iPad or Kindle with you is my advice! You may have another participant, of your trial or another trial, to chat to or you may be sitting alone. Very comfy chairs, nice throw rug for colder days, but essentially a pretty boring two hours.

Then time to go home.

Please, PLEASE bear in mind that even if you were on the exact same trial as I am on, you may have a completely different experience to my experience. Your disease would not be at the exact same stage as mine, you may have more or less joints affected, you may have more or less skin involvement, you may suffer more or less fatigue than I do. So many variables. What I write is my specific experience. Your experience may be similar, or not.

The next stage in the loading dose. This happens four weeks after the baseline injections.

I know, I know, you want to know where I am on that graph! Can I fit my runners on now? Well, I gave the runner answer away in a recent article if you are paying attention. Be patient, all will be revealed in good time. I had to wait and see!

Explanation re Concurrent Therapies

Although light therapy is not allowed, participants may stay on up to two DMARDs while on the trial. After all, if the participant is in the placebo arm, if no concurrent therapies were allowed, those participants would effectively be receiving no treatment at all for six months. Each clinical trial will have restrictions specific to that trial.

I am also restricted in what other medications I can take, such as pain medications. Given I rarely take any pain meds (exercise is my pain management), that didn’t worry me. I can’t change my dietary supplements, although I can stay on the ones I started on e.g. Vitamin D as ordered by my endocrinologist, fish oil as recommended by my sports physician. There are rules around surgery during the trial.

These are all considerations when deciding whether to participate in a clinical trial.

A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part I

Background

After discovering last November (2018) that my second DMARD (disease-modifying antirheumatic drug) had to be retired from my treatment regime, I did two things. I tried going medication free. I also started researching drug trials. If being medication free didn’t work, what was going to be my next step? What choices did I have that might be outside the standard treatment pathway?

Why research drug trials in particular? The first DMARD I was prescribed was developed in the 1930s. The second was introduced in 1955, originally to treat malaria but was later found to have immunomodulatory properties. These drugs are as old or older than I – surely modern medical science had something better by now? Something I wouldn’t have reactions to?

Well, yes, there are newer drugs available. Biologics are available on the PBS (Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) – IF the patient qualifies. That qualification bar can be high. As a example, this link to the PBS has the qualification requirements for one biologic that may be used to treat psoriatic arthritis. Click on the red “Authority Required” link to see the qualification requirements. When would I qualify? When I was 80? Not really a very positive thought for me. Yes, a private script can be given, but at $1,049.69 for four injection pens that is a little outside my price range long-term. And that is one of the cheaper ones. $40.30 with PBS subsidy. The schedule is usually inject once a week, so that is a monthly cost.

After much researching I found a drug trial that appealed to me. I don’t know who thinks up drug names, but this is risankizumab. Before I learnt how to say it, I referred to it as the “Kazakhstan drug! I had researched the drug extensively, then looked for trials in Australia. The drug had already been approved in some jurisdictions to treat the skin condition psoriasis, so there was plenty of information available. On July 23, 2019 it was announced this drug received TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) approval for use in Australia, but is not yet on the PBS.  Published results from those clinical trials were very informative and positive.

The trial in which I am a participant is to assess the efficacy for psoriatic arthritis.

So I had found a drug trial I was interested in for a drug that looked very promising.

What Was I Looking For?

At this point you may be asking what was I looking for by considering doing a drug trial. As odd as this may sound, I was looking for treatment stability. I am now on my fourth DMARD. Each one has not been the right medication for me. As noted above, some of these were not the newest drugs around. Plus there was this encouraging line on the patient information sheet of one: “It is not clear how [drug X] works.” Or this one: “It is not clear how [drug Y] works in inflammatory conditions; however it is thought to have an action on the immune system.”

There is my personality type to take into consideration. I’m one of those annoying yellow quadrant HBDI people – we are the experimental thinkers. This might make me a radical patient, I suspect! It means I’m always looking “outside the box”.

I’d also had the experience of having a Synvisc injection when it was very new – that experience had been extremely positive for me. Trying new stuff is not something that scares me in the slightest.

I have faith in medical science. No, we don’t always get it right, thalidomide being the classic example as I have discussed before. I don’t seem to qualify for the biologics currently on the PBS, yet I was desperate to at least try a medication younger than myself. A medication where the therapeutic action was actually known.

I wanted something that worked without the myriad of side effects I’d experienced to date. I was also looking for a medication that might address the fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with many chronic conditions, including psoriatic arthritis.

A Third and Fourth DMARD

There was an event that drove me even more in the direction of being involved in a drug trial. In March this year, while I was still mulling over the prospect of being a lab rat, I suffered an adverse reaction to my third DMARD. I was prescribed a fourth DMARD. It seemed if there was a reaction to be had from these DMARDs, I was unfortunately a person who was going to react. By this stage I had lost faith in DMARDs as a treatment for me. I must stress, they work perfectly well for many, many people. I’m just not one of those people, it seems. One of the DMARDs had worked wonderfully for the arthritis, but ruined my skin, for example. There was something with each of them.

Again, I stress, all these were the standard treatment pathway. I wasn’t being “mistreated” in any way.

Next Steps

I discussed the proposal with my GP, my dermatologist, my urologist and my pharmacist. All four were very supportive. I have since also brought my gastroenterologist up to speed and he is also supportive. I must make clear I was not asking them from a rheumatological perspective of course, I was seeking any concerns they may have for me in their field of speciality and/or any concerns they may have about MABs in general.

I signed up and waited for the screening appointment. While waiting I bit the bullet and got a second opinion. This rheumatologist was also supportive of my desire to do the trial. Disclosure time. Through sheer coincidence this professor happens to be involved with the drug trial. My GP had written the referral well before I’d found the trial I was interested in. My GP had not even known I was researching drug trials, I had never mentioned it. The fact there was a connection was serendipitous.

Screening

My initial screening appointment was on my birthday! That was in June. So. Much. Blood! They do take a lot of tubes of blood, let me tell you. At least for this trial. I failed the first screening. Probably because I’d been taking prednisolone to try to control the inflammation while DMARD four ramped into gear, my CRP (C-reactive protein) had dropped 0.15 below the cut-off. A month earlier it had been way over. Luckily there was a sister trial with different patient qualification criteria and those criteria I did meet. That meant a second screening appointment. That took place in July. Of course, at this later screening my CRP was back up again, well over the cut-off for the first trial, but the rules are the rules. I am on the sister trial.

You are weighed, height measured, vitals taken, blood tested, joint and enthesitis assessments are done. The skin is assessed. There is paperwork, lots of paperwork. A medical history is taken (I took in a typed history from birth to now). A consultation with a site doctor. All up the screening process takes about two hours.

When I cite visit durations, these are for this particular trial. Other trials for other medications may be longer or shorter.

Active or Placebo?

This is a double blind clinical trial. Those wanting further information on clinical trial protocols in Australia can read this link at Australian Clinical Trials. Yes, there is a placebo arm. While the trial goes for four years, the placebo arm only goes for six months, after that all participants are on the active intervention. My rationale was six months of placebo could not be more difficult than the last six months I’d been through and I would only have to manage for six months if I lost the 50/50 lottery. I had nothing to lose.

I also knew that results from the trials for treating the skin condition showed very little placebo effect and that results had been seen quite quickly. I felt I would have a very good indication before the six months was up of whether I was on the placebo or the risankizumab, based on my skin.

Baseline

My Baseline appointment, the appointment where you actually receive the drug or the placebo, also took place in July. This was a much longer appointment. Essentially all the steps of the screening appointment are repeated, plus the injection, plus the patient has to wait for two hours post injection to ensure there is no adverse reaction. The coffee is good.

How is it going?

I was originally not going to write about this until after the six months. The fact I am writing earlier should be a slight hint. This will be a series as there is way too much information for one article! Tune in later in the week for Part II!