Sunday, 9 February 2014

Who Pays the Piper? Off-Label or Polypill

It seems that autism is not the only “untreatable disease”, that does appear to be treatable.  At least twenty years ago, one apparently related condition was extensively treated off-label.  I am reading an intriguing book about the off-label treatment of Fibromyalgia in the 80s and 90s.


In medical-speak “off-label” is when a drug is use for a purpose it was never actually approved for.  If you have straight forward diseases, you would never need to use a drug “off label”.

In some countries off-label prescribing by doctors is totally discouraged, in others, it is quite common.
The problem occurs when it comes to paying for expensive drugs and, of course, who is to blame if things go wrong.
Since many drug discoveries are actually stumbled upon by chance, off-label drug use is not as crazy as it may sound.

Socialized Healthcare, Private Insurance and Lawsuits
In the developed world, healthcare is provided either via some kind of private insurance as in the US, or it is via the State, as in Europe.  If your insurer is unwilling to pay for off-label treatments, you will not get them (unless you pay yourself).  In the UK, if the treatment is not endorsed by NICE (in effect, the State), you are not going to get it.  In the old days, the doctor might have been willing to try some off-label drugs, but now they are likely to be more worried about being struck of the medical register for malpractice, or, in the US, being sued.

So, all over the world off-label prescribing is getting rarer.  Certain states in the US are more liberal, Florida I believe is one.
Your healthcare is really in the hands of big brother; in general, this is not a bad thing.  If you have some rare, “untreatable” condition, then the problems start.  Even if you know what off-label drug you want, you will struggle to get it.  You will even struggle to get any unusual blood tests done.

In some countries the system is much more liberal.  If you want to measure potassium in your blood or maybe IGF-1 or serotonin, the process is akin to having your dry cleaning done.  You pay and it gets done.

Off-Label in the US
Before insurers tightening things up in the 1980s, doctors in the US seemingly were able to prescribe pretty much what they wanted.  If you read about some of the things prescribed for severer cases of Fibromyalgia, you would be amazed at the things they used (IVIG, Baclofen, Oxytocin etc.) and how the underlying principle was one of trial and error.

Due to the unusual position of osteopathic medicine in the US, where osteopaths have the same drug prescribing rights as medical doctors, there are many “alternative” doctors practising what they call “holistic medicine”.  Then there is a small army of DAN doctors, some of whom are medical doctors and some are not.  You also have a large number of chiropractors in the US; graduates of chiropractic schools receive the degree Doctor of Chiropractic (DC), as I was told by a reader of this blog, US  Chiropractors do not prescribe drugs, but they do treat kids with autism (I am not sure how).
So it looks like, while the golden days are over, off-label drug prescribing is alive and well in the US.

From Off-Label to On-Label
You would think that once an off-label therapy gets established, it would be able to transition to on-label, and become an accepted mainstream therapy.  This does not happen very often.  The doctors using off-label widely, are seen as quacks by some established doctors and by much of the public.  If they are treating unusual, hard to define conditions, it is hard to carry out controlled clinical trials, and nobody has an interest to pay for them anyway.

So, off-label tends to stay off-label and for most people, untreatable conditions remain untreatable.

I am wary of my ideas being seen as risky, off-label, quack nonsense.  They certainly are off-label uses.

I think you should be able to transition from off-label to on-label.  If the disease is just a cluster of symptoms and pathologies, it will be hard to identify the sub-type for which the therapy is effective.  This applies to both autism and indeed fibromyalgia.
To move away from the very unscientific, and indeed wasteful, trial and error approach, you have to be able to use reliable biomarkers or diagnostic tests.  You would have to prove to a very cynical public, that you are not spouting nonsense.

Then faced with a therapy which can be shown effective consistently, albeit for a rare, very well defined, condition (based on blood tests etc.), there is no good reason why the therapy should not go on-label.
The question now with the Polypill is to be able to identify with >75% certainly for whom it will be effective.  I also need to understand, and indeed predict, when it might stop working.  This may sound very strange, but can happen.

Predicting when it might stop working, as well as suggesting what to do should that occur, makes things tricky. To do it perfectly you would really need the old school off-label doctor, and a vast amount of consultation time, that will not be available.
I live in a country where access to lab tests is very open and they are inexpensive, so I have come up with a testing strategy to accompany the Polypill, using tests that are inexpensive.

The idea of the tests is twofold; to identify the sub-group of children who will benefit from the Polypill therapy and to establish a baseline of markers to later understand any cases, should the Polypill “stop working”

Blood tests
·        IGF-1

·        Serotonin

·        Free T3

·        Cholesterol LDL & HDL

·        Histamine

·        Inflammatory markers CRP and   IL-6

·        Potassium

I would also use the TRH stimulation test, except it is not available where I live and requires several blood draws.  It shows central hypothyroidism to be common in autism (as it is, interestingly, in fibromyalgia).
I am expecting any loss in efficacy of the Polypill to be accompanied by a surge in histamine and/or the easy to measure inflammatory markers, C - reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin-6.

The trials would take place in winter (no pollen) and would exclude people with food allergies, digestive disorders, IBD, IBS, pancreatic enzyme deficiency etc.  The trial would be exclusively for early onset autism, no regression.
People with seizures would be very welcome and might form a separate subgroup within the test; I expect the incidence of seizure and epilepsy to be reduced by the Polypill.

Having created a trial based on children with elevated IGF-1, Serotonin, Free T3 and Cholesterol, I would then continue to measure all the above indicators on a monthly basis.

Assessing Success
Since the Polypill has several active ingredients, I would expect a marked reduction in autistic behaviours, based on any established autism rating scale.  I would expect parents, teachers and therapists to be really impressed by the effect.

Using the above screening biomarkers to select the trial group, I would hope to achieve a successful outcome in a great majority of cases.  This success rate has to be measured.  Perhaps the screening exclusions and biomarkers are too restrictive, or not restrictive enough.  If it was 100% effective, they should be relaxed; if it was 50% they should be tightened.
What intrigues me are the cases where the Polypill may stop working after a period of success.  If this is understood, it will be another step in understanding the dynamic nature of autism.  If the loss in effect can be correlated to an increase in histamine, in some cases, I will know what to do.  If in some cases CRP and IL-6 rise but histamine and serotonin do not, we would know that the immune system had been activated, but mast cells have not degranulated.  In these cases it would require the, currently under development, “Autism Toolkit”, to provide some immuno-modulatory therapy.

Just as abruptly as the Polypill might stop working in a child, I expect it will start working again, when the external stimulation (whatever it might be) has been withdrawn.
In children who have a permanent state of over-activation of their immune system, they should have sky high CRP and IL-6 and the Polypill will never start to work in the first place.  High inflammatory markers are seen in regressive autism, according to Ashwood, who is on my Dean’s List.

Having rationalised my objectives, I am finalizing my initial submission to the European Medicines Agency, to see whether the Polypill should remain Peter’s off-label curiosity, or become an Orphan Drug, to share with others.



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