Out-of-Pocket Costs for Neurology Drugs Rise Sharply

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Out-of-pockets costs for medications to treat multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy and other neurologic conditions rose sharply over 12 years, according to a new study that found the average monthly cost to patients for MS drugs rose nearly 2,000 percent.

One in six people lives with a neurologic disease or disorder, according to the American Academy of Neurology. The annual cost of treating neurologic disorders in the United States is more than $500 billion.

“With many new, high-priced neurologic drugs coming to market and a recent rise in use of high-deductible insurance plans, which shift costs to patients, it is likely out-of-pocket costs will continue to increase,” said lead author Brian Callaghan, MD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The study was published online in the journal Neurology.

Callaghan and his colleagues examined out-of-pocket costs for over 912,000 people with MS, neuropathy, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s disease who were privately insured from 2004 to 2016.

Researchers found that out-of-pocket costs for MS drugs showed the steepest monthly increase. Patients paid an average of $309 a month in 2016, compared to just $15 in 2004. Costs for MS patients in high-deductible health plans were even higher, averaging $661 per month or nearly $8,000 a year.

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Co-pays and deductibles for brand name medications for neuropathy, dementia and Parkinson’s disease also rose considerably.

“Everyone deserves affordable access to the medications that will be most beneficial, but if the drugs are too expensive, people may simply not take them, possibly leading to medical complications and higher costs later,” said Ralph Sacco, MD, President of the American Academy of Neurology.

Researchers said neurologists and other physicians usually do not know the cost of drugs they prescribe, so they don’t discuss alternative medications based on a patient’s disease, insurance plan, pharmacy and deductible.

“Out-of-pocket costs have risen to the point where neurologists should be able to consider the potential financial burden for the patient when prescribing medication, but they do not have this information available to them,” Callaghan said. “Neurologists need access to precise cost information for these drugs in the clinic so when they meet with patients to make treatment decisions, they can help minimize the financial burden.”

Even when a generic version of a drug becomes available, it can take years for out-of-pocket costs to drop substantially. It took five years for out-of-pocket costs for gabapentin, for example, to drop to those of other tricyclic anti-depressants after gabapentin went generic in 2004.

A 2015 study found an “alarming” increase in costs for MS drugs and suggested the price increases were coordinated by drug companies.

1 in 5 Multiple Sclerosis Patients Misdiagnosed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly one in five patients who are told they have multiple sclerosis are misdiagnosed with the autoimmune disease, according to a new study of patients referred to two MS treatment centers in Los Angeles. The patients spent an average of four years being treated for MS before receiving a correct diagnosis.

MS is a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing pain, numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, and fatigue. The symptoms are similar to those of several other chronic conditions – including neuropathy, migraine and fibromyalgia – which often leads to a misdiagnosis.

Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center analyzed the cases of 241 patients who had been diagnosed by other physicians and then referred to the Cedars-Sinai or UCLA MS clinics.

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Their findings, published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, indicate that 43 of the 241 patients (18%) with a previous diagnosis of MS did not meet the criteria for the disease.

"The diagnosis of MS is tricky. Both the symptoms and MRI testing results can look like other conditions, such as stroke, migraines and vitamin B12 deficiency," said lead author Marwa Kaisey, MD. "You have to rule out any other diagnoses, and it's not a perfect science."

The most common correct diagnoses was migraine (16%), radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS) (9%), spondylopathy (7%), and neuropathy (7%). RIS is a condition in which patients do not experience symptoms of MS even though their imaging tests look similar to those of MS patients.

The misdiagnosed patients received approximately 110 patient-years of unnecessary MS disease modifying drugs. Nearly half received medications that carry a known risk of developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a potentially fatal brain infection.

"I've seen patients suffering side effects from the medication they were taking for a disease they didn't have," Kaisey said. "Meanwhile, they weren't getting treatment for what they did have. The cost to the patient is huge — medically, psychologically, financially."

The cost of disease modifying medications for an MS patient in the U.S. exceeds $50,000 a year. Investigators estimated that the unnecessary treatments identified in this study alone cost almost $10 million. 

Researchers hope the results of the study will lead to new biomarkers and improved imaging techniques to help prevent future MS misdiagnoses.

A similar study in 2016 also found that MS patients were often misdiagnosed. One third of the patients were misdiagnosed for a decade or longer, most took unnecessary and potentially harmful medication to treat a disease they didn't have, and some even participated in clinical trials for experimental MS therapies. About a third suffered from morbid thoughts of death.

New Therapy Helps Improve MS Symptoms

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

An experimental stem cell therapy developed by Australian researchers is showing promise in treating patients with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), the most difficult-to-treat form of the autoimmune disease.

MS is a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain. Most patients go through periods of remission before the condition worsens and turns into secondary progressive MS. In primary progressive MS, the disease steadily gets worse from the start, with no periods of remission.

Scientists at the University of Queensland extracted immune cells from patients who had either primary or secondary progressive MS. The cells – known as T-cells – were then “trained” in a laboratory to target and kill cells infected with the Epstein Barr virus.

When the altered T-cells were injected back into the bloodstream of 10 patients, seven said their symptoms improved. They had more energy, improved concentration, slept better, and had improved vision and balance. There were no serious side effects.

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The Epstein Barr virus (EBV) has long been associated with MS, which is why the researchers targeted it. The virus also causes infectious mononucleosis, a glandular fever known as “mono.”

“Although this was an uncontrolled study, our finding of a substantial relationship between clinical response and EBV reactivity and polyfunctionality of the T-cell product, of which both the patients and examining neurologists were unaware, suggests that the clinical benefit might be due to the T cell therapy,” researchers reported in the journal JCI Insight.

“Our data add to the mounting evidence for a pathogenic role of EBV infection in MS. Because T-cells access all CNS (central nervous system) compartments, T-cell therapy targeting only EBV-infected B cells is a treatment modality that could offer favorable safety and durable efficacy.”

This was a Phase I trial, where the primary goal of researchers is to make sure a treatment is safe to use. More advanced studies with a larger number of patients are needed to see how well altered T-cells actually work on MS.

Cannabis Somewhat Effective in Treating MS

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Medical cannabis is mildly effective in relieving pain and other symptoms in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.

Spanish researchers analyzed 17 clinical trials involving over 3,100 patients – one of the largest reviews to date on the efficacy of cannabinoids in treating MS. Overall, they found that cannabis was safe, but had limited effectiveness in relieving pain, muscle spasticity and bladder dysfunction.

“Small but statistically significant differences were found in favor of cannabinoids for all 3 symptoms,” Marissa Slaven, MD, and Oren Levine, MD, of Ontario’s McMaster University said in a JAMA commentary. “The authors conclude that cannabinoids provide a mild reduction in subjective outcome assessment of uncertain clinical significance and that they are safe.”

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MS is a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain.

Medications and disease modifying drugs currently used to treat MS can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year – so a low-cost alternative treatment would be welcomed by many patients.

Four different medical cannabinoids were used in the 17 trials that were evaluated. They contained different levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana that makes people high. A lot of uncertainty remains about whether CBD or THC are more effective in relieving MS symptoms – something the JAMA study failed to resolve.

“It is critical that researchers gain a deeper understanding of both of the major (THC and CBD) and minor components of this therapy to unlock its full potential,” said Slaven.

“Given the relative safety of these agents, lack of strong evidence of other effective treatment options, and increasing access in some jurisdictions, it may seem appealing to include cannabinoids in the armamentarium of therapies for MS. But carefully conducted, high-quality studies with thought given to the biologic activity of different cannabis components are still required to inform on the benefits of cannabinoids for patients with MS.  

"The bottom line is there is certainly something happening with cannabinoids in regard to symptoms," Nicholas LaRocca, vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told HealthDay. "In spite of very strong interest in cannabinoid therapy, we really have relatively little in terms of good research to guide us in terms of what does and what doesn't work, what works for which types of individuals, and so forth."

A small study was recently launched in Australia that might answer some of those questions. Emerald Health Pharmaceuticals of San Diego is using a synthetic version of CBD – called EHP-101 -- to treat about 100 people who suffer from MS or scleroderma, another autoimmune disease. The placebo controlled Phase I trial is meant to determine whether EHP-101 is safe and has any side effects. Results are expected next year.

Vitamin D Levels May Help Predict Risk of MS

By Pat Anson, Editor

Vitamin D levels in the blood may help predict whether a person is at risk of developing multiple sclerosis, according to a large new study published online in the journal Neurology.

The findings provide the best evidence to date that low levels of Vitamin D may be a contributing factor to multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the central nervous system.

“There have only been a few small studies suggesting that levels of vitamin D in the blood can predict risk,” said study author Kassandra Munger, ScD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Our study, involving a large number of women, suggests that correcting vitamin D deficiency in young and middle-age women may reduce their future risk of MS.”

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Munger and her colleagues analyzed a database derived from blood samples taken during prenatal testing of over 800,000 Finnish women. Using hospital and prescription records, they were able to identify 1,092 of those women who were later diagnosed with MS. They were compared to a control group of 2,123 women who did not develop the disease.

Of the women who developed MS, 58% had deficient blood levels of vitamin D, compared to 52% of the women who did not develop the disease.

Deficient blood levels of vitamin D were defined as fewer than 30 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). Insufficient levels were 30 to 49 nmol/L and adequate levels were 50 nmol/L or higher.

Researchers found that with each 50 nmol/L increase in vitamin D in the blood, the risk of developing MS later in life decreased by 39 percent. In addition, women who had deficient levels had a 43% higher risk of developing MS than women who had adequate levels.

“More research is needed on the optimal dose of vitamin D for reducing risk of MS,” said Munger. “But striving to achieve vitamin D sufficiency over the course of a person’s life will likely have multiple health benefits.

"Our results further support and extend those of previous prospective studies of (Vitamin D) levels in
young adults and risk of MS, and suggests that many individuals are exposed to an increased MS risk that
could be reduced by broad population-based programs to prevent vitamin D deficiency."

Participants in the study were primarily white women, so the findings may not be the same for other racial groups or men. Also, while the blood samples were taken an average of nine years before MS diagnosis, it is possible some women may have already had MS when their blood was drawn and were not yet showing symptoms of the disease.

MS causes numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain. Symptoms begin with a series of irregular relapses, and after about 20 years MS worsens into a secondary progressive stage of the disease.

Low blood levels of vitamin D – known as the “sunshine vitamin”-- have previously been linked to an increased risk of developing MS. Danish researchers found that MS patients who spent time in the sun every day during the summer as teenagers developed the disease later in life than those who spent their summers indoors.

Ultraviolet rays in sunlight are a principal source of Vitamin D, which has a wide range of positive health effects, such as strengthening bones and inhibiting the growth of some cancers.

Vitamin D Lowers Inflammation from MS

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study is adding to the growing body of evidence that Vitamin D supplements can be used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) and other inflammatory chronic pain conditions.

The pilot study published by Johns Hopkins physicians in the journal Neurology found that taking a high dose of vitamin D3 is safe for people with MS and may help regulate the body’s hyperactive immune response.

“These results are exciting, as vitamin D has the potential to be an inexpensive, safe and convenient treatment for people with MS,” says study author Peter Calabresi, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center and professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “More research is needed to confirm these findings with larger groups of people and to help us understand the mechanisms for these effects, but the results are promising.”

MS is a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain.

Low blood levels of vitamin D – known as the “sunshine vitamin”-- have been linked to an increased risk of developing MS.

People who have MS and low levels of vitamin D are also more likely to have greater disability and more disease activity.

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In the Johns Hopkins study, 40 people with relapsing-remitting MS received either 10,400 international units or 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D3 supplements every day for six months. Patients with severe vitamin D deficiency were not included in the study. The current recommended daily allowance of vitamin D3 is 600 IU.

Blood tests at the start of the study, and after three and six months, measured the amount of vitamin D in the blood and the response in the immune system’s T cells, which play a key role in MS.

Participants taking the high dose of vitamin D reached optimal levels of Vitamin D in the blood (40 to 60 ng/ml), while the group taking the low dose did not reach that target. The people taking the high dose also had a reduction in the percentage of inflammatory T cells related to MS severity. The people taking the low dose did not have any noticeable changes in the percentages of their T cell subsets.

“We hope that these changes in inflammatory T cell responses translate to a reduced severity of disease,” says Calabresi. “Other clinical trials are underway to determine if that is the case.”

Another recent study in Neurology by Danish researchers found that MS patients who spent time in the sun every day during the summer as teenagers developed the disease later in life than those who spent their summers indoors. Ultraviolet rays in sunlight are a principal source of Vitamin D, which has a wide range of positive health effects, such as strengthening bones and inhibiting the growth of some cancers.

Low levels of serum vitamin D have also been linked to fibromyalgia. In a study of over 1,800 fibromyalgia patients published in the journal Pain Physician, researchers at National Taiwan University Hospital found a “positive crude association” between chronic widespread pain and hypovitaminosis D, which is caused by poor nutritional intake of Vitamin D, inadequate sunlight or conditions that limit Vitamin D absorption.

Pain News Network columnist Crystal Lindell began taking Vitamin D supplements when her blood levels were found to be very low. Within a few months she was feeling better, exercising more, and losing weight. You can read Crystal’s story by clicking here.

Sunlight May Delay Onset of Multiple Sclerosis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Exposure to sunlight may elevate your risk of sunburn, skin cancer and other health problems, but it appears to have a beneficial effect in delaying the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Danish researchers found that MS patients who spent time in the sun every day during the summer as teenagers developed the disease later in life than those who spent their summers indoors. Their study, which was published in the online issue of Neurology, also found that people who were overweight at age 20 developed MS earlier.

"The factors that lead to developing MS are complex and we are still working to understand them all, but several studies have shown that vitamin D and sun exposure may have a protective effect on developing the disease," said study author Julie Hejgaard Laursen, MD, of Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark. "This study suggests that sun exposure during the teenage years may even affect the age at onset of the disease."

MS is a chronic and incurable disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs, difficulty walking, paralysis, loss of vision, fatigue and pain.

Ultraviolet rays (UVB) in sunlight are a principal source of Vitamin D, which has a wide range of positive health effects, such as strengthening bones and inhibiting the growth of some cancers.

In the Danish study, over 1,100 people with MS filled out questionnaires and gave blood samples. They were put into two groups based on their sun habits during their teenage years: those who spent time in the sun every day and those who did not. They were also asked about their use of vitamin D supplements during their teenage years and how much fatty fish they ate at age 20.

The people who spent time in the sun every day had an average onset of MS that was nearly two years later than those who did not spend time in the sun. On average, they developed MS at age 33, compared to 31 for those who were not in the sun every day.

"It appears that both UVB rays from sunlight and vitamin D could be associated with a delayed onset of MS," Laursen said. "However, it's possible that other outdoor factors play a role, and these still have to be identified."

Those who were overweight at age 20 developed MS about 1.6 years earlier than those of average weight and 3.1 years earlier than those who were underweight.

Previous studies have shown a relationship between MS and childhood obesity. Obese people are also known to have lower blood levels of vitamin D.

"The relationship between weight and MS might be explained by a vitamin D deficiency, but there's not enough direct evidence to establish this yet," Laursen said.

"A limitation of the study is the risk of recall bias because participants were asked to remember their sun, eating and supplement habits from years before," Laursen said. "In particular, someone with a long history of MS and onset of the disease at an early age, may wrongly recall a poor sun exposure. Additionally, only Danish patients were included into the study, so there should be caution when extending the results to different ethnic groups living in different geographic locations."