Jose Marques Lopes, PhD, science editor —

José holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Porto, Portugal. After postdocs at Weill Connell Medicine and Western University, where he studied the processes driving hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease, he moved on in 2016 to a career in science writing and communication. José is the author of several peer-reviewed papers and a book chapter and has presented his research in numerous international meetings.

Articles by Jose Marques Lopes

#AANAM – Greater Exposure to Ocrevus Means Less Risk of Disability Progression in MS Patients, Study Contends

Higher exposure to Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) is associated with greater immune B-cell depletion in the blood, and lessened risk of disability progression in patients with relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS) and primary progressive disease (PPMS), according to new research. The study supporting that finding, “Pharmacokinetics, Pharmacodynamics and…

Mayzent ‘Will Change Lives’ of MS Patients Transitioning to SPMS, Novartis Says

The “regulatory environment” favored Mayzent (siponimod) being approved as an oral treatment for people with relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS) — specifically, clinically isolated syndrome (CIS), relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), and active secondary progressive MS (SPMS) — a top executive with Novartis said, although the pharmaceutical company had requested a label covering all with SPMS. Dan…

Celgene Seeking FDA Approval for Ozanimod to Treat Adults With Relapsing MS

An application has been submitted to approve ozanimod as an oral treatment for adults with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis in the U.S., according to its developer, Celgene. “New oral treatment options with differentiated profiles like ozanimod are needed to help address an unmet need for people with relapsing forms of MS,” Jay Backstrom, MD, Celgene’s chief medical officer, said in a press release. Celgene's New Drug Application has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Earlier this month, the company submitted a marketing authorization application to the European Medicines Agency covering the treatment of adults with relapsing-remitting MS. “With concurrent applications in the U.S. and EU, we look forward to advancing this promising medicine through the regulatory review process to provide a new option for the treatment of (relapsing MS) in 2020,” Backstrom said. Ozanimod is designed to cause the retention of immune cells in lymphoid tissues, thereby blocking their migration to the central nervous system — brain and spinal cord — and preventing damage to nerve fibers and their protective layer, called myelin. The investigational therapy selectively binds to S1P receptor subtypes S1P1 and S1P5. The NDA application is based on positive findings from two multicenter, double-blind, Phase 3 trials called SUNBEAM and RADIANCE part B. Both studies demonstrated that ozanimod reduced the number of relapses and brain lesions. In the SUNBEAM Phase 3 trial, 1,346 participants with relapsing MS were randomized to one daily dose of 0.92 or 0.46 mg of ozanimod — equivalent to 1 mg and 0.5 mg of the therapy’s HCI formulation — or Avonex (interferon beta-1a, marketed by Biogen) for at least 12 months. Results showed that treatment with ozanimod led to fewer relapses and brain lesions, as well as clinically meaningful improvements in processing speed compared with Avonex. In the Phase 2/3 RADIANCE trial, patients were divided in two parts: in part A, participants received either one daily dose of ozanimod (0.5 mg or 1.0 mg) or a placebo for 24 weeks; in part B, a 96-week open-label extension study completed by 223 patients, those initially on placebo switched to ozanimod. As in the SUNBEAM trial, results of part A of the RADIANCE trial revealed a reduction in the number of brain lesions from weeks 12 to 24, as well as less frequent relapses compared with a placebo. Treatment with ozanimod was safe and well-tolerated. Findings of part B of the study included an increased percentage of patients free of T1 lesions on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans — which refer to areas of active inflammation and disease activity — after two years of treatment, from 58.5–69.0% of patients in part A to 86.5–94.6% of patients in part B. T2 lesions, a measure of the total amount of MRI lesions — both old and new — and relapse rate remained low in patients maintained on ozanimod (more significantly with the higher dose of 1.0 mg), and dropped in those who switched from a placebo. The scientists also analyzed ozanimod’s benefits using data from the SUNBEAM and RADIANCE part B trials, which covered 2,659 patients treated over one to two years. Compared with Avonex, ozanimod reduced the annualized relapse rates — the number of relapses per year — by 42% in the higher dose group and 26% in the lower dose group. Treatment with ozanimod also lessened the relapse rate requiring steroid treatment or hospitalization by 43% (in the 1 mg dose group) and 26% (in the 0.5 mg dose group) compared with Avonex treatment. In addition to MS, ozanimod is also being developed for patients with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, two inflammatory bowel diseases.

#AANAM – Ublituximab Safe, Well-tolerated in Extension Study of Phase 2 Trial in Relapsing MS

Treatment with ublituximab continues to be safe and well-tolerated by patients with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis, according to an extension study of a Phase 2 trial. According to a press release, Edward Fox, MD, PhD, from Central Texas Neurology Consultants, will give the presentation on May 7 at poster session P3: MS Clinical Trials and Therapeutic Research. Ublituximab is an investigational monoclonal antibody being developed by TG Therapeutics to target the immune B-cell marker protein CD20. This leads to the depletion of B-cells from the blood and central nervous system — B-cells are activated during MS relapses. According to the company, ublituximab may be superior to current anti-CD20 treatments in MS, enabling both lower doses and shorter infusion times. Final results of the main TG-Therapeutics-sponsored Phase 2 trial were recently presented at the 4th Annual Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) Forum, held in Dallas, Texas. Data showed that 93% of the 48 patients enrolled (mean age 40 years) were relapse-free after a 48-week treatment with ublituximab. The annualized relapse rate — the number of relapses per year — was 0.07. In addition, median B-cell depletion was more than 99% throughout 48 weeks. Moreover, 87% of participants showed no evidence of clinical disease. Magnetic resonance imaging showed a complete elimination of T1 lesions at 24 and 48 weeks 24 in all 46 patients analyzed. Mean T2 lesion volume decreased by 10.6% at 48 weeks, compared with the beginning of the study. T1 lesions refer to areas of active inflammation and disease activity, while T2 lesions are a measure of the total amount of lesions, both old and new. Ublituximab was found to be well-tolerated, and did not induce an severe treatment-related adverse events. The most frequent adverse events were infusion-related reactions. No patient had to discontinue treatment due to an ublituximab-related side effect. At the upcoming AAN meeting, Fox will present data on both this Phase 2 trial and its open-label extension, in which 37 patients from the primary study continued receiving one-hour infusions of 450 mg of ublituximab every 24 weeks for an additional 96 weeks. Safety was monitored throughout the study, and disability assessments using the Expanded Disability Status Scale were conducted every 48 weeks. As of October 2018, nearly 30% of participants had completed 48 weeks of treatment in the extension study. Results showed that ublituximab continues to be well-tolerated, with no discontinuations due to adverse events. “The Phase 2 OLE supports that one-hour infusions of [ublituximab] continue to be safe and well tolerated,” the researchers wrote. Of note, five of the eight study authors are affiliated with TG Therapeutics. The team expects additional patient follow-up data from the study to be available by the time of the AAN presentation. According to the scientists, the results support the ongoing Phase 3 ULTIMATE program, which includes the ULTIMATE 1 and ULTIMATE 2 trials. These studies are comparing the efficacy and safety of 450 mg of ublituximab with Aubagio over 96 weeks of treatment in relapsing MS patients. Both trials are led by Lawrence Steinman, MD, at Stanford University. TG Therapeutics expects to have results from these trials as early as mid-2020.

Tecfidera May Work to Lower Relapses by Inducing Epigenetic Changes in T-cells, Study Suggests

Treating multiple sclerosis with Tecfidera induces specific genetic alterations that may reduce the levels of immune T-cells targeting the central nervous system, researchers report. Environmental stimuli may induce epigenetic changes in cells — meaning not alterations in the genes themselves, but changes in gene expression (the process by which information in a gene is synthesized to create a working product, like a protein). Epigenetic changes may induce MS development, as these alterations can cause T-cells to attack the central nervous system. One type of epigenetic change is DNA demethylation, the removal of methyl chemical groups, in which molecules involved in metabolism (such as fumarate) interact with enzymes known as DNA demethylases. This process in key for T-cell activation, function and memory, suggesting that it could be an immunomodulatory target. Fumaric acid esters were shown to be effective in MS clinical trials, leading to the approval of Tecfidera (by Biogen) for people with relapsing-remitting forms of the disease. However, their complete mechanism of action remains unclear. Aiming to address this gap, scientists at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recruited 98 MS patients, either previously untreated (47 people, mean age of 38.4), treated with Tecfidera (35 people, mean age of 42.3), or treated with glatiramer acetate (16 patients, mean age of 43.4) — marketed as Copaxone by Teva Pharmaceuticals, with generic forms by Sandoz (as Glatopa) and by Mylan. All patients had stable disease for at least three months, but disease duration was shortest in untreated patients — 40.4 months vs. 130 months in those given Tecfidera, and 100 months in patients using glatiramer acetate. Blood samples were collected from each participant to assess epigenetic changes in T-cells expressing the cell surface marker CD4. MS patients typically have an activated form of these cells in their blood and cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Results revealed that, compared to the other two groups, treatment with Tecfidera was associated with a lower percentage of T-cells containing the CD3, CD4, and CD8 markers, as well as lower levels of subsets of T-cells expressing the CCR4 and CCR6 receptors, which are critical to T-cell migration to the gut, brain, and skin. Treatment with glatiramer acetate resulted in significantly milder alterations in T-cell percentages compared to no treatment. Researchers then found that FAEs induce excessive methylation — the addition of methyl groups — in T-cells containing CD4, compared to glatiramer acetate. Specifically, this overmethylation was observed in a micro-RNA — tiny RNA molecules than control gene expression — known as miR-21, key for the differentiation of a subset of T-cells called T helper-17 (Th17) cells and for CCR6 expression in MS mouse models. These Th17 cells are critical in tissue inflammation and destruction, and have been implicated in MS. The epigenetic effects of FAEs were subsequently validated by comparing pre- to post-treatment with Tecfidera in seven patients. In turn, in vitro (lab dish) experiments showed that FAEs act specifically on the activation of naïve T-cells — those able to respond to new pathogens to the immune system — containing the CD4 or the CD8 markers. Of note, patients with MS have shown increased miR-21 levels, particularly during acute relapses. As such, the team hypothesized that its hypermethylation by FAEs could contribute to remission and the prevention of relapses in this patient population. These results "suggest that the metabolic-epigenetic interplay in T-cells could be harnessed for therapeutic purposes," the researchers wrote, and that the immunomodulatory effect of FAEs in MS is due at least in part to the epigenetic regulation of T-cells. The researchers believe that their findings have a broader implication, beyond MS. "Our findings about therapeutically active metabolites have implications for the treatment of not only multiple sclerosis but also other autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease, which involve the same type of T-cells," Achilles Ntranos, the study’s lead author, said in a press release. "Understanding the epigenetic effect of metabolites on the immune system will help us develop several novel strategies for the treatment of autoimmune diseases, which could help patients and physicians achieve better clinical outcomes," Ntranos added. Patrizia Casaccia, the study’s senior author, concluded: "It may one day be possible to target and suppress production of the specific brain-homing T-cells that play a role in the development of MS."

Medicare Rules, Higher Cost-sharing Load Increase Out-of-pocket Spending for MS Therapies, Study Reports

Restrictive access policies by Medicare and a rising cost-sharing burden lead to an increased price of disease-modifying therapies for multiple sclerosis patients, according to new research. The findings also revealed that Medicare beneficiaries without a low-income subsidy may spend on average $6,894 for their MS treatments in 2019, with generic versions of Copaxone representing the highest burden. Approximately 25-30% of patients with MS are covered by Medicare through disability. In 2013, MS Medicare beneficiaries with MS and without low-income subsidies averaged $4,389 a year in out-of-pocket expenses, second only to hepatitis. Despite a greater number and diversity of DMTs for MS treatment, their price has increased substantially over the past two decades. In fact, expenses related to DMTs for MS are among the highest by class in the Medicare market. “It’s a dysfunctional market that lacks the typical incentives for most other consumer prices,” Daniel Hartung, the study’s lead author, said in an Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) press release written by Erik Robinson. “Aside from the public optics, there are few incentives for companies not to raise prices. Most intermediaries in the drug distribution channel, including drug companies, benefit from higher prices,” Hartung said. These high prices may lead to reduced access, as insurance companies can restrict coverage or manage use through prior authorization or step-therapy policies, and high deductibles or cost-sharing components in health plans that increase the financial burden for patients. Now, a team at OHSU and the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy used prescription drug plan formulary files to analyze changes in coverage policies from 2007 to 2016, and to estimate out-of-pocket spending for DMTs for MS within Medicare Part D program, through which outpatient prescriptions are financed. Eleven DMTs available during the study period were analyzed. Tysabri and Lemtrada were not part of the analysis because they are delivered via intravenous infusion in the clinic setting, and are typically covered through Medicare Part B. Results revealed that the price for Betaseron , Copaxone 20 mg , Rebif, and Avonex — the four therapies available in 2007 — quadrupled over the 10-year study period. Except for Copaxone 40 mg and its 20 mg generic formulation (Glatopa, by Sandoz), prices for the other DMTs introduced after 2007 increased by 9–13% per year. These include Novartis’ Extavia (interferon beta-1b) and Gilenya (fingolimod), Biogen’s Plegridy (peginterferon beta-1a) and Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate), and Sanofi Genzyme’s Aubagio (teriflunomide). In 2007, 99-100% of plans covered the four available medications, with the exceptions being Rebif (88%). These percentages fell to 54-89% in 2016. Coverage of the other DMTs varied between 21% (Extavia) to 92% for Copaxone 40 mg. In turn, coverage for the three oral options — Gilenya, Aubagio and Tecfidera — generally increased or was maintained over time, ranging from 46% for Aubagio to 83% for Gilenya. The use of prior authorization increased from 61-66% in 2007, to 84-90% in 2016. Also, the share of plans with at least one DMT available without limitations declined from 39% to 17%. The average projected out-of-pocket spending for 2019 across DMTs was $6,894. The highest projected out-of-pocket expenses ($8,219) are associated with generic glatiramer acetate, both Glatopa and Mylan’s 20 mg/mL and 40 mg/mL generic formulations, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017. This is more than with any of Copaxone’s formulations. According to the team, this is the result of a higher coinsurance payment (37% vs. 25%) expected for generic medications compared to brand-name options, as well as the fact that manufacturers of generics do not provide discounts toward a beneficiary’s total out-of-pocket spending, unlike what is mandated by the Affordable Care Act for brand-name therapies. “This is a pernicious effect of the release of a generic and an unfortunate effect of Medicare rules,” Dennis Bourdette, MD, one of the study’s co-authors, said. A proposal by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration addresses this by eliminating manufacturer discounts from the calculation to determine a patient’s total out-of-pocket spending. Such strategy would reduce the disparity between brand-name and generic therapies, the researchers said. “In this study we found that Medicare beneficiaries with MS who require a [DMT] face considerable policy-related access restrictions and high out-of-pocket spending,” the researchers wrote. “There is an urgent need for policies that slow the growth of drug prices, improve access, and shield patients from excessively high out-of-pocket spending,” they concluded.

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