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.

Elite Hospitals Offering Unproven Stem Cell Treatments

By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

The online video seems to promise everything an arthritis patient could want.

The six-minute segment mimics a morning talk show, using a polished TV host to interview guests around a coffee table. Dr. Adam Pourcho extols the benefits of stem cells and “regenerative medicine” for healing joints without surgery. Pourcho, a sports medicine specialist, says he has used platelet injections to treat his own knee pain, as well as a tendon injury in his elbow. Extending his arm, he says, “It’s completely healed.”

Brendan Hyland, a gym teacher and track coach, describes withstanding intense heel pain for 18 months before seeing Pourcho. Four months after the injections, he says, he was pain-free and has since gone on a 40-mile hike.

“I don’t have any pain that stops me from doing anything I want,” Hyland says.

The video’s cheerleading tone mimics the infomercials used to promote stem cell clinics, several of which have recently gotten into hot water with federal regulators, said Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

But the marketing video wasn’t filmed by a little-known operator. It was sponsored by Swedish Medical Center, the largest nonprofit health provider in the Seattle area.

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Swedish is one of a growing number of respected hospitals and health systems—including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Miami—that have entered the lucrative business of stem cells and related therapies. Typical treatments involve injecting patients’ joints with their own fat or bone marrow cells, or with extracts of platelets, the cell fragments known for their role in clotting blood. Many patients seek out regenerative medicine to stave off surgery, even though the evidence supporting these experimental therapies is thin at best, Knoepfler said.

Hospitals say they’re providing options to patients who have exhausted standard treatments. But critics suggest the hospitals are exploiting desperate patients and profiting from trendy but unproven treatments.

The Food and Drug Administration is attempting to shut down clinics that hawk unapproved stem cell therapies, which have been linked to several cases of blindness and at least 12 serious infections. Although doctors usually need preapproval to treat patients with human cells, the FDA has carved out a handful of exceptions, as long as the cells meet certain criteria, said Barbara Binzak Blumenfeld, an attorney who specializes in food and drug law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Washington.

Hospitals like Mayo are careful to follow these criteria, to avoid running afoul of the FDA, said Dr. Shane Shapiro, program director for the Regenerative Medicine Therapeutics Suites at Mayo Clinic's campus in Florida.

‘Expensive Placebos’

While hospital-based stem cell treatments may be legal, there’s no strong evidence they work, said Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics who has published a series of articles describing the size and dynamics of the stem cell market.

“FDA approval isn’t needed and physicians can claim they aren’t violating federal regulations,” Turner said. “But just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical.”

For doctors and hospitals, stem cells are easy money, Turner said. Patients typically pay more than $700 a treatment for platelets and up to $5,000 for fat and bone marrow injections. As a bonus, doctors don’t have to wrangle with insurance companies, which view the procedures as experimental and largely don’t cover them.

It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business. It preys on people’s desperation.
— Dr. James Rickert

“It’s an out-of-pocket, cash-on-the-barrel economy,” Turner said. Across the country, “clinicians at elite medical facilities are lining their pockets by providing expensive placebos.”

Some patient advocates worry that hospitals are more interested in capturing a slice of the stem-cell market than in proving their treatments actually work.

“It’s lucrative. It’s easy to do. All these reputable institutions, they don’t want to miss out on the business,” said Dr. James Rickert, president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, which advocates for high-quality care. “It preys on people’s desperation.”

In a joint statement, Pourcho and Swedish defended the online video.

“The terminology was kept simple and with analogies that the lay person would understand,” according to the statement. “As with any treatment that we provide, we encourage patients to research and consider all potential treatment options before deciding on what is best for them.”

But Knoepfler said the guests on the video make several “unbelievable” claims.

At one point, Dr. Pourcho says that platelets release growth factors that tell the brain which types of stem cells to send to the site of an injury. According to Pourcho, these instructions make sure that tissues are repaired with the appropriate type of cell, and “so you don’t get, say, eyeball in your hand.”

Knoepfler, who has studied stem cell biology for two decades, said he has never heard of “any possibility of growing eyeball or other random tissues in your hand.” Knoepfler, who wrote about the video in February on his blog, The Niche, said, “There’s no way that the adult brain could send that kind of stem cells anywhere in the body.”

The marketing video debuted in July on KING-TV, a Seattle station, as part of a local lifestyles show called “New Day Northwest.”

Although much of the show is produced by the KING 5 news team, some segments—like Pourcho’s interview—are sponsored by local advertisers, said Jim Rose, president and general manager of KING 5 Media Group.

After being contacted by KHN, Rose asked Swedish to remove the video from YouTube because it wasn’t labeled as sponsored content. Omitting that label could allow the video to be confused with news programming. The video now appears only on the KING-TV website, where Swedish is labeled as the sponsor.

“The goal is to clearly inform viewers of paid content so they can distinguish editorial and news content from paid material,” Rose said. “We value the public’s trust.”

Increasing Scrutiny

Federal authorities have recently begun cracking down on doctors who make unproven claims or sell unapproved stem cell products.

In October, the Federal Trade Commission fined stem cell clinics millions of dollars for deceptive advertising, noting that the companies claimed to be able to treat or cure autism, Parkinson’s disease and other serious diseases.

In a recent interview Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said the agency will continue to go after what he called “bad actors.”

With more than 700 stem cell clinics in operation, the FDA is first targeting those posing the biggest threat, such as doctors who inject stem cells directly into the eye or brain.

“There are clearly bad actors who are well over the line and who are creating significant risks for patients,” Gottlieb said.

Products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket.
— Scott Gottlieb, FDA Commissioner

Gottlieb, set to leave office April 5, said he’s also concerned about the financial exploitation of patients in pain.

“There’s economic harm here, where products are being promoted that aren’t providing any proven benefits and where patients are paying out-of-pocket,” Gottlieb said.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said there is a broad “spectrum” of stem cell providers, ranging from university scientists leading rigorous clinical trials to doctors who promise stem cells are “for just about anything.” Hospitals operate somewhere in the middle, Marks said.

“The good news is that they’re somewhat closer to the most rigorous academics,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic’s regenerative medicine program, for example, focuses conditions such as arthritis, where injections pose few serious risks, even if that’s not yet the standard of care, Shapiro said.

Rickert said it’s easy to see why hospitals are eager to get in the game.

The market for arthritis treatment is huge and growing. At least 30 million Americans have the most common form of arthritis, with diagnoses expected to soar as the population ages. Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections for arthritis generated more than $93 million in revenue in 2015, according to an article last year in The Journal of Knee Surgery.

“We have patients in our offices demanding these treatments,” Shapiro said. “If they don’t get them from us, they will get them somewhere else.”

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic try to provide stem cell treatments and similar therapies responsibly, Shapiro said. In a paper published this year, Shapiro described the hospital’s consultation service, in which doctors explain patients’ options and clear up misconceptions about what stem cells and other injections can do. Doctors can refer patients to treatment or clinical trials.

“Most of the patients do not get a regenerative [stem cell] procedure,” Shapiro said. “They don’t get it because after we have a frank conversation, they decide, ‘Maybe it’s not for me.’”

Lots of Hype, Little Proof

Although some hospitals boast of high success rates for their stem cell procedures, published research doesn’t back up those claims, Rickert said.

The Mayo Clinic website says that 40 to 70 percent of patients “find some level of pain relief.” Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare claims that 75 to 80 percent of patients “have had significant pain relief and improved function.” In the Swedish video, Pourcho claims “we can treat really any tendon or any joint” with PRP.

The strongest evidence for PRP is in pain relief for arthritic knees and tennis elbow, where it appears to be safe and perhaps helpful, said Dr. Nicolas Piuzzi, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.

But PRP hasn’t been proven to help every part of the body, he said.

PRP has been linked to serious complications when injected to treat patellar tendinitis, an injury to the tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone. In a 2013 paper, researchers described the cases of three patients whose pain got dramatically worse after PRP injections. One patient lost bone and underwent surgery to repair the damage.

“People will say, ‘If you inject PRP, you will return to sports faster,’” said Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But that hasn’t been proven.”

A 2017 study of PRP found it relieved knee pain slightly better than injections of hyaluronic acid. But that’s nothing to brag about, Rickert said, given that hyaluronic acid therapy doesn’t work, either. While some PRP studies have shown more positive results, Rickert notes that most were so small or poorly designed that their results aren’t reliable.

In its 2013 guidelines for knee arthritis, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said it is “unable to recommend for or against” PRP.

“PRP is sort of a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” said Dr. William Li, president and CEO of the Angiogenesis Foundation, whose research focuses on blood vessel formation. “It’s the poor man’s approach to biotechnology.”

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Tests of other stem cell injections also have failed to live up to expectations.

Shapiro published a rigorously designed study last year in Cartilage, a medical journal, that found bone marrow injections were no better at relieving knee pain than saltwater injections. Rickert noted that patients who are in pain often get relief from placebos. The more invasive the procedure, the stronger the placebo effect, he said, perhaps because patients become invested in the idea that an intervention will really help. Even saltwater injections help 70 percent of patients, Fu said.

A 2016 review in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery concluded that “the value and effective use of cell therapy in orthopaedics remain unclear.” The following year, a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded, “We do not recommend stem cell therapy” for knee arthritis.

Shapiro said hospitals and health plans are right to be cautious.

“The insurance companies don’t pay for fat grafting or bone-marrow aspiration, and rightly so,” Shapiro said. “That’s because we don’t have enough evidence.”

Rickert, an orthopedist in Bedford, Indiana, said fat, bone marrow and platelet injections should be offered only through clinical trials, which carefully evaluate experimental treatments. Patients shouldn’t be charged for these services until they’ve been tested and shown to work.

Orthopedists—surgeons who specialize in bones and muscles—have a history of performing unproven procedures, including spinal fusion, surgery for rotator cuff disease and arthroscopy for worn-out knees, Turner said. Recently, studies have shown them to be no more effective than placebos.

Misleading Marketing

Some argue that joint injections shouldn’t be marketed as stem cell treatments at all.

Piuzzi said he prefers to call the injections “orthobiologics,”noting that platelets are not even cells, let alone stem cells. The number of stem cells in fat and bone marrow injections is extremely small, he said.

Patients are attracted to regenerative medicine because they assume it will regrow their lost cartilage, Piuzzi said. There’s no solid evidence that the commercial injections used today spur tissue growth, Piuzzi said. Although doctors hope that platelets will release anti-inflammatory substances, which could theoretically help calm an inflamed joint, they don’t know why some patients who receive platelet injections feel better, but others don’t.

So, it comes as no surprise that many patients have trouble sorting through the hype.

Florida resident Kathy Walsh, 61, said she wasted nearly $10,000 on stem cell and platelet injections at a Miami clinic, hoping to avoid knee replacement surgery.

When Walsh heard about a doctor in Miami claiming to regenerate knee cartilage with stem cells, “it seemed like an answer to a prayer,” said Walsh, of Stuart, Florida. “You’re so much in pain and so frustrated that you cling to every bit of hope you can get, even if it does cost you a lot of money.”

The injections eased her pain for only a few months. Eventually, she had both knees replaced. She has been nearly pain-free ever since. “My only regret,” she said, “is that I wasted so much time and money.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

How Sodas and Smoking Worsen Disability

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Most doctors will tell you that smoking and drinking sweetened beverages like soda every day will lead to poor health. They can also worsen your risk of disability if you have rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, according to new studies.

Researchers in Germany wanted to know how diet can affect the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain.  

They surveyed 135 MS patients to see how close their diet was to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet – which limits foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar – and recommends whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish, nuts and legumes.

Researchers did not find a link between what the participants ate and their level of disability, but there was a strong association with what they drank.

"While we did not find a link with overall diet, interestingly, we did find a link with those who drank sodas, flavored juices and sweetened teas and coffees," said study author Elisa Meier-Gerdingh, MD, of St. Josef Hospital in Bochum, Germany.

MS patients who consumed the largest amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages – averaging about 290 additional calories per day -- were five times more likely to have severe disability than people who rarely drank sweetened beverages.

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"While these results need to be confirmed by larger studies that follow people over a long period of time, and the results do not show that soda and sugar-sweetened beverages cause more severe disability, we do know that sodas have no nutritional value and people with MS may want to consider reducing or eliminating them from their diet," said Meier-Gerdingh, who will present her findings at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Philadelphia in May.

Smoking Worsens Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Previous studies have also found that smoking increases your chances of having MS and several other chronic pain conditions.

A new study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston demonstrated for the first time that women who stop smoking can reduce their risk of developing the most severe form of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But it takes time to have a beneficial effect.

"Ours is the first study to show that a behavior change can reduce risk for seropositive RA. Risk isn't just about genes and bad luck--there's a modifiable environmental component to the onset of this disease and a chance for some people to reduce their risk or even prevent RA," said corresponding author Jeffrey Sparks, MD, of the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at the Brigham.

Sparks and colleagues analyzed data from the Nurses' Health Study, which tracked the long-term health of registered nurses from across the U.S.  Brigham researchers identified over 1,500 nurses who developed RA, but they were most interested in those with "seropositive" RA as opposed to "seronegative" RA. Patients with seropositive RA generally have more severe joint deformities and disability.

For seropositive RA, the risk of disability began to go down about five years after women quit smoking and continued to decrease the longer they stayed non-smokers. Participants who quit for good reduced their risk of seropositive RA by 37 percent after 30 years. The team did not find any association between seronegative RA and smoking.

"One of the lessons here is that it takes sustained smoking cessation to reap the full benefit," said Sparks, who published his findings in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

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"Whereas for other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, quitting smoking can provide a more immediate effect, here we're seeing benefits decades later for those who quit smoking permanently."

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing pain, inflammation and bone erosion. While the biological mechanisms that link smoking and the development of RA are unclear, Sparks believes that smoking may contribute to the formation of RA-related antibodies that increase inflammation.

In future studies, Brigham researchers want to extend their investigations to include men and to see if smoking cessation can prevent the formation of RA-related antibodies and stop progression of the disease.

New Non-Opioid Drug Effective in Treating Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Pfizer and Eli Lilly have announced positive results from a large Phase 3 study evaluating an experimental non-opioid pain reliever as a treatment for chronic low back pain.

Patients receiving 10 mg injections of tanezumab showed statistically significant improvement in back pain at 16 weeks compared to placebo. A lower dose of tanezumab 5 mg was not as effective. Over 1,800 people with chronic low back pain in North America, Europe and Asia participated in the study.

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

"This study demonstrates the potential of tanezumab to treat individuals suffering from moderate-to-severe chronic low back pain who have been unable to achieve relief with currently available medicines," said Ken Verburg, Pfizer’s tanezumab development team leader.

“This is one of the longest studies conducted to date in chronic low back pain. We look forward to further analyzing these results, and believe the data from this study will support our planned future global regulatory submissions in chronic low back pain."

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Pizer and Eli Lilly have also reported positive findings in evaluating tanezumab for the treatment of osteoarthritis. The Food and Drug Administration granted “fast track” designation to tanezumab in 2017 to help speed its development.

Tanezumab has a history of safety concerns. Clinical studies were halted in 2010 after Pfizer reported some osteoarthritis patients receiving the drug had worse symptoms and needed joint replacement surgery. Another safety issue arose in 2012 when tanezumab caused adverse changes in the nervous system of animals.  Most clinical studies of tanezumab did not resume until 2015.

In the current study, rapidly progressive osteoarthritis (RPOA) was observed in 1.4 percent of patients receiving tanezumab and 0.1 percent of patients in the other treatment groups. Joint fractures and total joint replacements were experienced in 0.4 percent and 0.7 percent of tanezumab-treated patients, respectively, while none were observed in the other treatment groups.

In addition to back pain, the ongoing Phase 3 program for tanezumab includes studies in osteoarthritis pain and cancer pain due to bone metastases.