Experimental Drug Rebuilds Cartilage in Knee Osteoarthritis Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

An experimental treatment shows promise in slowing the progression of knee osteoarthritis by increasing the thickness of cartilage in the knee joint, according to results of an early clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine gave 549 volunteers with knee osteoarthritis injections of the drug sprifermin or a placebo. Sprifermin is a disease modifying drug that stimulated the production of cartilage-producing cells in animal studies.

The researchers found that participants who received a 100 microgram dose of sprifermin either twice or once yearly experienced a statistically significant but slight gain in joint cartilage thickness after two years.  Those given smaller doses had smaller gains in cartilage that were not statistically or clinically significant.

"While the increase in cartilage thickness is a positive sign, we do not know at this point whether it has any clinical significance," said lead investigator Marc Hochberg, MD, a Professor of Medicine at UMSOM. "It is not known whether those who experience increased cartilage thickness over time will be able to avoid or delay knee replacement surgery."

Interestingly, patients treated with a high dose of sprifermin did not experience any significant improvement in their arthritis symptoms – such as pain and stiffness -- compared to those given lower doses or placebo injections.

All of the injections were stopped after 18 months. The Phase 2 study is designed to continue for a total of five years and future analyses of the findings are planned.

About 10 percent of Americans over age 60 have knee osteoarthritis, a progressive condition caused by the breakdown of joint cartilage. Knee osteoarthritis causes pain, physical disability, lower quality of life and is associated with early death and cardiovascular problems.

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The pain is usually treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, steroid injections, and sometimes surgery. No disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs have been approved in the United States or Europe.

Arthroscopic and knee replacement surgeries are increasingly being used to treat knee osteoarthritis. But a number of recent studies have found the arthroscopic surgery does not relieve knee pain any better than physical therapy or over-the-counter pain relievers. Researchers have also found that about a third of patients who had knee replacement surgery continued to have pain after the procedure.

Arthritis Foundation Releases First CBD Guideline

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Arthritis Foundation has become the first major patient advocacy group to release guidelines on the use of cannabidiol (CBD) to treat arthritis pain.  

About 54 million Americans have been diagnosed with arthritis. According to a recent national survey, 79 percent of arthritis patients are currently using CBD, have tried it in the past, or are considering it.

CBD infused products – from edibles to lotions to beverages -- are rapidly going mainstream, even though there is little scientific evidence to support their use. There has also been little guidance for consumers on what products to use or in what doses — until now.

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“We are intrigued by the potential of CBD to help people find pain relief and are on record urging the FDA to expedite the study and regulation of these products,” the Arthritis Ffoundation said in a statement.

“While currently there is limited scientific evidence about CBD’s ability to help ease arthritis symptoms, and no universal quality standards or regulations exist, we have listened to our constituents and consulted with leading experts to develop these general recommendations for adults who are interested in trying CBD.”  

CBD is largely extracted from a hemp, a marijuana strain that has only trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient that makes people high.

"Millions of people in the U.S. are likely trying to use cannabinoids to treat pain, and many are doing this in ways that might cause more harm than good, especially when they use high doses of THC," said Daniel Clauw, MD, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan who was one of the experts the foundation consulted.

"It's important that the Arthritis Foundation has taken a stand on CBD,” Clauw said in a statement. “Right now, it appears to be fairly safe and might help certain types of pain. It's far better to give this guidance, even if preliminary, because otherwise people will have no guidance whatsoever." 

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

DRUG POLICY ALLIANCE

The new guideline is largely cautionary and does not explicitly recommend CBD as a treatment, stating only that it “may help” with arthritis-related symptoms such as pain, insomnia and anxiety.

When taken in moderate doses, experts say CBD has no major safety issues, although it may interact with some drugs commonly taken for arthritis, such as naproxen (Aleve), celecoxib (Celebrex), tramadol (Ultram), gabapentin (Neurontin), pregabalin (Lyrica) and some antidepressants.

The Arthritis Foundation recommends taking CBD in oral sprays or tinctures so the liquid can be taken under the tongue and be absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Experts say a “go slow” approach is best, starting with a few drops twice a day and increasing the dose gradually over a period of weeks until an effective dose is reached.

The guideline strongly discourages inhaling or vaping CBD because of the risk of respiratory problems. It also discourages taking CBD in edibles, such as gummies and cookies, because the dosing is unreliable. Experts say the effectiveness of topical lotions and creams with CBD is unclear because they often contain other ingredients.

Other key takeaways from the guideline:

  • CBD should never be used to replace disease-modifying drugs that help prevent permanent joint damage in inflammatory types of arthritis.

  • CBD use should be discussed with your doctor in advance, with follow-up evaluations every three months or so.

  • Buy from a reputable CBD company that has each batch tested for purity, potency and safety by an independent laboratory and provides a certificate of analysis.  

Unlike prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the manufacturing process for CBD products is not subject to FDA review, and there has been no FDA evaluation of their effectiveness, proper dosage, how they could interact with drugs, or whether they have side effects. 

The Federal Trade Commission recently warned companies that make CBD products to stop making unsubstantiated claims that cannabidiol can be used to treat arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.

Enough Is Enough!

By David Eaton, Guest Columnist

Back in 2007, when my back pain became so severe that it was affecting my ability to work, I wrote an email to my boss using the subject line, "Enough is Enough!"

My pain level was hindering my ability to concentrate so much that, despite having a college education, I had to ask a friend how to spell the word "place." I could not figure out why "plase" sounded right but looked so wrong.  

The previous night, I could not even read a lesson to the teenagers at my church, despite the fact that I had taught the exact same lesson twice before -- and I was the one who wrote it.

Pain medication and procedures such as epidural nerve blocks and RFA treatments kept my pain under control for most of the past decade, until the CDC introduced its opioid prescribing guideline. As a result, I have been bedridden for most of the past month.

My pain issues began 40 years ago in my senior year of high school, when I was in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in me being thrown through the rear window of the car and landing 35 feet away on my head. The impact caused a compression fracture at the base of my neck and damage to multiple discs as well.

Within a few years, it became necessary for a neurosurgeon to cut a section out of both of the occipital nerves going up the back of my neck and into my scalp as a long-term treatment for the massive headaches I was having.

Unfortunately, the nerves grew back together after 35 years and the migraine headaches have returned --- along with nerve related pain caused by disc degeneration and arthritis.

DAVID EATON

DAVID EATON

Another auto accident 25 years ago caused my knees to slam into the hard dash of my minivan. During the ambulance ride to the hospital, the paramedics told me that I would likely be using a cane within 5 years and in a wheelchair within a decade. They were not far off. I managed to go 13 years before the pain in my knees became so severe that I could no longer climb in and out of my car or walk into the office.

Now, after being on disability for a decade, I am unable to straighten my legs. Attempting to stand, much less walk a step or two, is both excruciating and impossible.

And, if you order right now, we will include a free congenital birth defect that resulted in severe stenosis in my lower back. This was only magnified when I suffered a slipped disc 12 years ago.

It was at that time that I was referred to a pain clinic, which used a combination of medications and procedures to control my pain. Those treatments were very successful. While they did not eliminate the pain, they were at least able to keep it at a manageable level until the CDC stuck their nose between my doctor and myself.

Their guideline has resulted in some pain clinics not prescribing anything stronger than what you can get over the counter. While I am sure that part of the clinics’ decision making included the fact that they make profits off of additional office visits, as well as surgical procedures, the end result is the same: Patients are left hurting and becoming depressed to the point of suicide.  

My doctors regularly question me about suicidal thoughts, as well as a list of other mandatory questions any time I even hint at being depressed. The truth is that I am depressed and have been for quite some time, but even more so now that the pain is so much more severe.

The CDC guideline, a knee-jerk reaction to the opioid epidemic, has resulted in my daily use of extended release opioids to be cut in half. This led to a doubling of not just the amount, but the severity of my pain.

To make matters worse, a change in insurance coverage resulted in me having to be treated by a different pain clinic. The new doctor took me completely off anti-inflammatory medication for the arthritis in my back, neck and knees. The resulting pain wakes me up at the slightest movement. The pain in my knees is so excruciating when I attempt to get from my bed or recliner and into my power chair for a trip to the restroom, that that I put it off as long as I can. 

In addition, the sensory nerves in my legs are now so inflamed that I feel as if someone is stabbing me to the bone or trying to pry off one of my toenails.  I feel as if someone has poured boiling hot coffee down my legs, giving me severe burns on my thighs.

Like I said, enough is enough! I have more pain than I can handle. Something has to give and I am praying that it is a relaxation of the CDC guideline. Maybe it would help if I could get a medical transport van to carry me to the CDC so I could pour a pot of hot coffee down some guy's pants and then check the severity of his burns by repeatedly stabbing him with a meat thermometer.

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David Eaton resides outside of Atlanta, GA with his wife of 36 years. He has 2 grown sons, both married, and 4 beautiful grandkids. Prior to becoming disabled, David worked in the IT field. He was also heavily involved in his church, where he taught Sunday school and served as Youth Minister.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Use of NSAIDs Risky for Osteoarthritis Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s long been known that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen can raise the risk of cardiovascular problems. A large new study in Canada has documented how NSAIDs can significantly raise the risk of heart disease, congestive heart failure and stroke in people with osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a joint disorder that leads to thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage. NSAIDs are frequently used to treat the pain and inflammation caused by OA.

The Canadian study, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, looked at nearly 7,750 osteoarthritis patients in British Columbia and compared them with a control group of over 23,000 patients without OA. The average age of the participants was 65 and a little over half were women.

The risk of developing cardiovascular disease was found to be about 23% higher among people with OA than the control group. Researchers attributed about 41% of that increased risk to the use of NSAIDs.

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NSAIDs appeared to play a significant role in several cardiovascular problems. The risk of congestive heart failure was 42% higher among people with OA, followed by a 17% greater risk of heart disease and a 14% greater risk of stroke.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to evaluate the mediating role of NSAID use in the relationship between osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease in a large population-based sample," said senior author Aslam Anis, PhD, of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

"Our results indicate that osteoarthritis is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and suggest a substantial proportion of the increased risk is due to the use of NSAIDs. This is highly relevant because NSAIDs are some of the most commonly used drugs to manage pain in patients with osteoarthritis."

The association of cardiovascular disease with NSAIDs is consistent with previous research.  A large international study in 2017, for example, found that prescription strength NSAIDs raises the risk of a heart attack as soon as the first week of use.

NSAIDs are used to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, and are found in a wide variety of over-the-counter products, including cold and flu remedies. They are found in so many products -- such as Advil and Motrin -- that many consumers may not be aware how often they use NSAIDs. 

Canada adopted guidelines in 2017 that recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioid pain medication. The guideline makes no mention of the health risks associated with NSAIDs, but focuses on their cost effectiveness.

“NSAID-based treatment may have lower mean costs and higher effectiveness relative to opioids,” the guideline states. “Naproxen-based regimens in particular may be more cost effective compared to opioids and other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and celecoxib.”

Opioid guidelines released in 2016 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioids, but acknowledge the medications “do have risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding or perforation as well as renal and cardiovascular risks.”

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ordered warning labels for all NSAIDs to indicate they increase the risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke. The FDA warning does not apply to aspirin.

The European Society of Cardiology recommends limited use of NSAIDs by patients who are at risk of heart failure. People already diagnosed with heart failure should refrain from using NSAIDs altogether.

The Hidden Benefits of Glucosamine

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Do you take glucosamine supplements to reduce joint pain and stiffness? You’re not alone if you do. According to a 2007 survey, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults take glucosamine to prevent or treat pain from osteoarthritis, back pain and other conditions.

The evidence to support the use of glucosamine for joint pain is thin, but a large new study in The BMJ suggests regular use of the supplement can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at Tulane University analyzed 7 years of extensive health data for almost half a million adults aged 40 to 69 enrolled in the UK Biobank study. Those who regularly took glucosamine were about 15% less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

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Glucosamine occurs naturally in the fluid around joints and plays an importantly role in building cartilage. Glucosamine is extracted from shellfish and is often combined in supplements with chondroitin, a similar substance that is also found in joints.

People who took glucosamine in the BMJ study were more likely to be women, older, more physically active, have healthier diets and take other supplements.

Over the course of seven years, 2.2% of those who did not use glucosamine had a heart attack or stroke, compared to 2.0% of people who did use glucosamine. People who used glucosamine were also less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, 0.5% vs. 0.7% of those who didn’t use the supplement.

The difference doesn’t appear to be significant, but when adjusted for risk and other factors, it means that glucosamine users had a 22% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

For smokers, the benefits of regular glucosamine use were even greater. They had 37% less risk of having coronary heart disease compared to smokers who didn’t use the supplements.

Researchers didn’t establish the reason why glucosamine lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but they believe the supplements help reduce inflammation – one of the main factors involved in the development of heart disease, as well as chronic pain.

“Several potential mechanisms could explain the observed protective relation between glucosamine use and CVD diseases. In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study, regular use of glucosamine was associated with a statistically significant reduction in C reactive protein concentrations, which is a marker for systemic inflammation,” researchers reported. “Other mechanisms might also be involved, and future investigations are needed to explore the functional roles of glucosamine in cardiovascular health.”

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) downplayed the study findings, pointing out the cardiovascular benefits of glucosamine are “quite small.”

“If you want to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, it would be much better to concentrate on living a healthy lifestyle, rather than paying for glucosamine supplements,” the NHS said.

CreakyJoints Under Scrutiny for Ties to Drug Makers 

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patient advocacy groups are coming under scrutiny again for their financial ties to drug companies. The latest is the Global Healthy Living Foundation (GHLF), a non-profit charity that created CreakyJoints, a website and social media platform that raises awareness about arthritis and other chronic illnesses. 

According to Bloomberg News reporter Ben Elgin, the foundation and CreakyJoints have long had a cozy relationship with Pfizer, Amgen, Johnson & Johnson and other corporate donors. Pfizer has donated nearly $1 million to the foundation over the past decade and one of its vice-presidents even serves on GHLF’s board of directors.

In a speech to drug makers in 2010, GHLF president Seth Ginsberg reportedly sought their donations -- while at the same time promising the companies “higher profits” and “sales rep participation in our programs.”

Ginsberg, who was diagnosed with spondyloarthritis as a teenager, co-founded GHLF in 1999 with marketing executive Louis Tharp.

In addition to CreakyJoints, GHLF has two other “grassroots” programs, Fail First Hurts and the 50-State Network, which advocate for healthcare policies that often align with the interests of its donors.  

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According to GHLF’s 2017 tax return, the foundation had over $5 million in annual revenue. Ginsberg was paid a salary of $384,000, while Tharp received $220,000 as Executive Director.  Nearly $300,000 was also paid to a for-profit marketing company established by the two men, although it’s unclear what the payment was for.

Bloomberg reported that GHLF’s tax returns “reflect errors and unexplained entries that have obscured the amounts of money flowing to its cofounders.”

“Are they operating in a way that is extremely transparent? It’s safe to say they’re not,” Brian Mittendorf, a professor of accounting at Ohio State University told Bloomberg. “From looking at their disclosures, you have no idea how closely they’re related to some of the entities it pays.”

At least one GHLF board member and several patient volunteers reportedly left the organization because they were troubled by its relationships with donors.

GHLF did not grant an interview to Bloomberg, but replied to questions in writing.

“The only time we engage in advocacy is when it helps patients. If it doesn’t help patients, we don’t do it,” the foundation said in a statement. “Our mission is to engage in patient-centered research, provide advocacy for access-to-care, and to support people living with chronic disease by providing a supportive environment and accessible education.”

In a related story, Bloomberg reported that several other recently formed non-profits – such as the U.S. Rural Health Network --  appear to be little more than front organizations for the pharmaceutical industry.

“There are a number of groups created by pharma companies that look and act like patient organizations, but they’re 100 percent funded by industry,” said Marc Boutin, chief executive officer of the National Health Council. “They sound and look like patient organizations, but they take positions that industry wants.”

Drug Companies Fined for Co-Pay Programs

Last week two drug companies agreed to pay $125 million in fines to settle allegations that they used charitable foundations as front organizations to bilk Medicare.

Amgen and Japanese drug maker Astellas Pharma paid the foundations to establish co-pay prescription drug programs for Medicare patients. Federal prosecutors say the programs were primarily designed not to help patients, but to illegally pay their co-pays for Astellas and Amgen products.

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Federal anti-kickback laws prohibit pharmaceutical companies from making any kind of payment to induce Medicare patients to purchase their drugs. The prohibition includes co-pays.

“The companies’ payments to the foundations were not ‘donations,’ but rather were kickbacks that undermined the structure of the Medicare program and illegally subsidized the high costs of the companies’ drugs at the expense of American taxpayers,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement.

“When pharmaceutical companies use foundations to create funds that are used improperly to subsidize the co-pays of only their own drugs, it violates the law and undercuts a key safeguard against rising drug costs,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt.

Last year, Pfizer paid nearly $24 million to settle allegations that it also used a co-pay program to pay Medicare for the company’s prescription drugs.

U.S. Pain Foundation Co-Pay

The U.S. Pain Foundation is under investigation by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee for a similar co-pay program established with Insys Therapeutics, a controversial Arizona drug company. Insys makes Subsys, an expensive and potent fentanyl spray blamed for hundreds of overdose deaths.

U.S. Pain received $2.5 million from Insys to launch the “Gain Against Pain” program, which ostensibly helped Medicare patients pay for drugs prescribed for breakthrough cancer pain. Critics say the program was primarily used to increase prescriptions for Subsys, which can cost $24,000 for just a four-day supply.

Former U.S. Pain CEO Paul Gileno initially defended the co-pay program, saying the money from Insys “does not influence our values,” but later resigned over allegations that he misappropriated $2 million from his own charity.

The Gain Against Pain program was subsequently shutdown in August 2018 and U.S. Pain said it would no longer accept funding from Insys.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a lengthy letter last December to U.S. Pain interim CEO Nicole Hemmenway asking a series of questions about the Insys co-pay program. According to the senator’s office, Wyden has still not gotten a full response.  

“The U.S. Pain Foundation has yet to provide a substantial amount of the information that Senator Wyden requested in his letter. Staff is in communication with the organization in order to get to the bottom of the organization’s financial relationship with pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Insys, and its compliance with applicable federal laws,” a Wyden spokesperson said in a statement to PNN.

A federal jury in Boston is currently in its third week of deliberations in a criminal case against Insys founder John Kapoor and four former executives of the company, who are accused of bribing doctors to boost sales of Subsys. 

U.S. Pain also remains under investigation by the Connecticut Attorney General’s office for financial irregularities that led to Gileno’s resignation.

New Safety Concerns for Osteoarthritis Drug

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Disappointing results from a Phase 3 clinical study are raising new safety concerns about an experimental class of pain-relieving drugs once considered a promising alternative to opioids.

Pfizer and Eli Lilly say 6.3% of osteoarthritis patients taking a 5 mg dose of tanezumab experienced rapidly progressive osteoarthritis in their joints. There was significant improvement in their pain and physical function, but the patients’ overall assessment of their condition was no better than those treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Patients taking a lower 2.5 mg dose of tanezumab did not have any significant improvement in their pain, quality of life or overall condition. And 3.2% experienced rapidly progressive osteoarthritis.

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“We are analyzing these findings in the context of the recent Phase 3 results as we assess potential next steps for tanezumab,” Ken Verburg, Pfizer Global Product Development, said in a statement. “We plan to review the totality of data from our clinical development program for tanezumab with regulatory authorities.”

Tanezumab is a humanized monoclonal antibody that targets nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that increases as a result of injury, inflammation or chronic pain. Tanezumab binds to NGF and inhibits pain signals from reaching the brain.

Tanezumab was considered so promising a therapy that it was given fast track designation from the FDA in 2017, a process that speeds up the development of new therapies to treat serious conditions.

Ironically, it was the FDA that slowed the development of NGF inhibitors in 2010 because of concerns that tanezumab made osteoarthritis worse in some patients. Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

The reappearance of the same safety issue and the marginal pain relief provided by tanezumab could be the last straw for the drug, according to one analyst.

“It is hard for us to imagine how these results could have been much worse. Pfizer indicated that they ‘plan to review the totality of data’ with regulatory authorities, which suggests to us that the co-sponsors will try to find a way to resurrect the program for some subset or sub-population of patients, but recognizes that this result puts the drug’s entire future in doubt,” SVB Leerink research analyst Geoffrey Porges said in a note to clients.

A clinical study of fasinumab, another NGF inhibitor being developed by Teva and  Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, was stopped by the FDA in 2016 after a patient showed signs of severe joint disease. Regeneron and Teva are continuing to study fasinumab in patients with chronic low back pain.

Pfizer and Eli Lilly are also studying tanezumab as a treatment for low back pain, and reported promising results from a Phase 3 trial in February. Rapidly progressive osteoarthritis was also reported in a small number of patients involved in that study.