More people are being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis than ever before, but researchers aren’t exactly sure why. A variety of factors including genetics, weakened immune systems and the environment may be at play.
In this podcast produced for this year’s Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week, Cathy Ferrone, director of patient advocacy at Celgene, and Laura Wingate, senior vice president of Education, Support and Advocacy at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, discuss the rise in worldwide incidence rates of inflammatory bowel disease and why research in this area remains so important.
CATHY FERRONE FROM CELGENE AND LAURA WINGATE FROM CROHN’S AND COLITIS FOUNDATION DISCUSS THE RISE IN INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE.
To learn more about the lifelong struggle of having an inflammatory bowel disease, read “What It’s Really Like to Live with Ulcerative Colitis.”
To explore the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s resources available to patients, caregivers and health care professionals, visit their website at http://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/ or call 1-888-My-Gut-Pain.
In patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a cancer in which the bone marrow does not make enough healthy blood cells, red blood cells may not mature and function properly. As a result, about 85 percent of patients with MDS develop serious anemia. Since roughly half of patients do not respond to current therapies aimed at increasing red blood cell production, many end up relying on frequent transfusions to treat the symptoms associated with anemia.
Sandra Kurtin, Ph.D., ANP-C, AOCN, University of Arizona Cancer Center, believes MDS will be in the spotlight at this year’s American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting. In a Q&A, Kurtin discusses current research to uncover why red blood cells don’t mature properly in MDS and how targeting different stages of their maturation may lead to much-needed new therapeutic options.
What advances in the research of MDS will hematologists learn about at this year’s ASH meeting?
“The International Working Group for the Prognosis of MDS will be meeting to look at the molecular underpinnings of MDS and to identify groups of patients by risk. We’ll be looking at some molecular targets for potential new therapies in MDS.
During the meeting, I look forward to seeing data about some of the novel pathways implicated in the development of blood cancer in certain groups of patients. Researchers now believe that certain mutations within these pathways may help predict survival chances for some patients with MDS.”
Why has developing effective therapies for MDS been challenging?
“MDS is complicated. It’s been difficult to pinpoint a single pathway that overcomes the abnormalities inherent in MDS. For instance, the tumor cells’ surroundings, known as the microenvironment, may play a role. Current therapies target cancerous cells, but may not be targeting the microenvironment. Additionally, molecular abnormalities and abnormalities in the spliceosome are known to contribute to the pathobiology of MDS. Today, the only potential cure is a stem cell transplant, but many patients may not be eligible for one.”
Why is a stem cell transplant not an option for most patients?
“While some patients may not warrant immediate treatment, the only way to overcome the abnormalities of MDS is to replace the genetic profile through an allogeneic bone marrow transplant. But that is associated with several risks. Transplantation is typically considered for patients with higher-risk MDS.
Usually, patients have to be younger than a certain age and otherwise healthy. Some centers are now allowing transplants up to the age of 75. The median age of diagnosis for MDS patients is 76.”
What other treatment strategies are being explored for MDS?
“Treatment for lower-risk MDS is aimed at improving cytopenias, including anemia and reducing the need for transfusions. Meanwhile, the primary treatment goal for higher-risk MDS is to extend survival.
Doctors use treatments such as erythropoietin to stimulate the red blood cell production in some patients with lower-risk MDS. An unmet medical need remains in patients that do not respond or do not maintain response to supportive treatment.”
Now we’re coming to realize that transcription factors and other molecular attributes also regulate the production of these cells.
How are researchers working to understand the biological mechanisms that lead to MDS?
“Pathologists are still exploring the ‘normal’ process by which blood stem cells commit and differentiate to form all the different types of blood cells within the bone marrow. We used to think that the process was primarily driven by growth factors. Now we’re coming to realize that transcription factors and other molecular attributes also regulate the production of these cells.”
What are the most important unanswered questions in MDS research?
“We’re trying to understand why MDS is such a heterogeneous disease. Why do some patients have a slow-growing disease while others have a more aggressive malignancy? What are the mutations that make it different? We’re trying to identify targets for drugs within those mutations.
Among the therapies highlighted at ASH will be those aimed at novel targets. Some new therapies are combination regimens using different classes of drugs, and some are novel single-agent therapies that may be combined with other treatments in the future. Therapies approved for acute myeloid leukemia, which evolves from MDS, are also being explored for MDS. There’s finally a lot of exciting research after all these years.”
To learn more about these rare cancers are negatively impact the daily lives of patients, read “New Survey Reveals Myelodysplastic Syndromes Leave Patients Feeling Fatigued.”
Beta-thalassemia is a blood disorder, with more than 60,000 infants born worldwide with the disease each year. However, unless you live in Asia, India, the Middle East or the Mediterranean where beta-thalassemia is most prevalent, you may never have heard of this inherited blood disorder that disrupts the body’s ability to make hemoglobin.
But that may be changing as doctors in Europe and North America are increasingly encountering patients with beta-thalassemia. “We’re only now starting to deal with it, and there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” explained Dr. Maria Domenica Cappellini, a hematologist at the University of Milan in Italy, whose research focuses on the disease.
As hematologists gather for this year’s American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting in San Diego, Cappellini and other experts are sounding the alarm about the expanding prevalence of beta-thalassemia so that physicians and health systems everywhere can better prepare for an increasing number of patients with this genetic disorder.
Spreading Faster Than Ever
Beta-thalassemia is an inherited disease caused by mutations in a gene required for making a component of hemoglobin – a protein that carries oxygen in the blood. Those mutations either prevent or reduce the production of hemoglobin, which can cause a shortage of mature red blood cells and lead to anemia.
Often times, children inherit the gene mutation from parents who are carriers but do not show any symptoms of the disease. In this scenario, the child has a 25 percent chance of developing beta-thalassemia and a 50 percent chance of being an asymptomatic carrier like their parents.
The mutations that cause beta-thalassemia are more common in Asia, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean where they are found in up to 20 percent of the population. But the increase in modern migration means that cases are now cropping up more often in other regions.
Southern Mediterranean countries recognize the rise in patients with beta-thalassemia and have increased resources to meet the growing demand appropriately. While in Northern and Western Europe, health professionals and policymakers acknowledge this trend, they lack reliable data on the frequency and patterns of the disease just yet. Without data, it’s difficult to make the case for investing in programs to address the issue, which means patients struggle to find the right doctors.
Bracing for Beta-thalassemia
Many patients with beta-thalassemia require life-long regular blood transfusions and medication to reduce the levels of iron in their body. “These patients cannot produce enough mature red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout their bodies,” Cappellini said. “So transfusions are necessary for their survival.”
Understandably, beta-thalassemia treatment requires significant expertise and resources, including safe blood donations. Many countries are preparing their health care systems by improving resources for blood transfusions. “As migration throughout the world continues to change, health care systems will need to evolve rapidly to meet the needs of a more diverse population,” Cappellini said.
“I get daily emails from colleagues in other parts of Europe asking how to treat patients with beta-thalassemia,” Cappellini said. “We’re trying to make this information as accessible and comprehensive as possible.”
Beta-thalassemia is something that hematologists in North America and Europe need to get up to speed on and quickly.
Longer Term Solutions
We’re still a long way from being able to correct or erase the mutation that causes beta-thalassemia. Currently, the only available cure is a stem cell transplant, but many patients may not be eligible. Fewer than 10 percent of patients eligible for a stem cell transplant actually receive one, often due to high costs or a lack of a donor.
Meanwhile, researchers are constantly looking at other ways to improve treatment options and patients’ quality of life, including therapies that could reduce the need for red blood cell transfusions. Transfusion frequencies vary based on patient needs, sometimes requiring them to spend hours receiving treatment every couple of weeks.
Another long-term solution is prevention through carrier screening and education, and some countries have found success with this approach. For instance, Cyprus, Italy and Greece enacted mandatory premarital screening and genetic counselling in the 1970s and have subsequently achieved almost a 100 percent reduction in at-risk births.
Without mandatory screenings, health care systems rely on education to reduce the incidence of beta-thalassemia. “If we don’t educate more populations about how this disease is transmitted, we will continue to see an increasing number of carriers and an expanding prevalence of beta-thalassemia around the world,” said Cappellini. “Beta-thalassemia is something that hematologists in North America and Europe need to get up to speed on, and quickly.”
To learn more about beta-thalassemia, read “The Need for Safe Blood Donations for Beta-thalassemia Patients.”
New research has helped scientists better understand the more than 60 different molecular subtypes of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), revealing just how diverse and complex this group of blood cancers is. And with better understanding comes the potential for different treatment pathways, which clinicians anticipate seeing at this year’s American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting.
“From a biological standpoint, molecular lymphoma subtypes are very different from one another,” said Dr. Georg Lenz, Director of the Department of Hematology, Oncology and Pneumology at the University Hospital in Muenster, Germany. “These complexities potentially warrant different treatment approaches.”
Expanding our knowledge of these unique molecular drivers may open the door for targeted treatment approaches. Dr. Lenz expects we will learn more about these approaches during the ASH congress.
A Tale of Two Characterizations
NHL subtypes can be divided into two broad categories based on how quickly the disease progresses: they can either be indolent or aggressive. Indolent lymphomas, such as follicular lymphoma (FL), are usually slow-growing and represent up to 40 percent of all NHL cases. Aggressive lymphomas grow at a much faster rate, such as one of the most frequent subtypes, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).
Fast Progress in Slow-Moving NHL
The treatment landscape for indolent NHL, which includes follicular and marginal zone lymphomas, has been evolving quickly. While many patients still receive chemotherapy, targeted therapies have been making headway. At this year’s ASH Annual Meeting, Lenz expects to see more data from trials of these investigational therapies in combination with—or instead of—chemotherapy, opening the possibility for chemotherapy-free treatment.
“While we see increased interest in chemotherapy-free treatments, these approaches still have serious side effects,” Lenz said. “We still have a lot of work to do in managing these toxicities.”
Fortunately, most patients with indolent NHL respond well to treatment, but about 20 percent of FL patients relapse rather early after initiation of therapy. Since each patient responds to treatment differently, clinicians need to adapt treatment approaches accordingly, particularly for patients who do not initially respond well.
“This could be the next step for patients,” Lenz said. “It’ll be a challenge for years to come, but hopefully, we’ll see some progress in predicting treatment responses at this year’s ASH.”
It has been challenging to translate the biological knowledge of NHL into clinical practice.
New Avenues in Aggressive NHL Subtypes
Meanwhile, researchers are still grappling with the genetic complexity of aggressive lymphomas. Even previously identified subtypes are evolving into a collection of unique subtypes. For instance, DLBCL can be further broken down into additional subtypes, including activated B cell-like (ABC) DLBCL and germinal center B cell-like (GCB) DLBCL. Different treatment approaches for the two are being tested in clinical trials.
“DLBCL encompasses unique molecular subtypes that behave differently, both biologically and clinically,” Lenz said. “It has been challenging to translate the biological knowledge of NHL into clinical practice.”
One investigational option being studied in patients with relapsed or refractory DLBCL and other aggressive NHL subtypes is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.
“Results on CAR T cell therapy are encouraging. However, we need longer follow-up to correctly assess its efficacy,” Lenz said.
To learn how patients and doctors are partnering to make treatment decisions in lymphoma, read “Developing Confidence in Lymphoma Treatment Decisions.”
Over the past few decades, scientists have come to understand that the loss of brain tissue—categorized into grey and white matter—in people with multiple sclerosis (MS) is linked with disease worsening. But research is revealing that grey matter loss, in particular, may be closely associated with disability and cognitive impairment.
“Grey matter loss is one of the best predictors of disease progression in people with MS,” said Dr. John DeLuca, senior vice president for research and training at the Kessler Foundation. “Finally, we’re seeing data that may help us better understand the mechanisms that drive this disease.”
DeLuca is calling attention to the value of assessing grey matter and cognitive impairment in MS and what implications these findings may have in understanding the disease.
Grey Matter Loss Associated With MS Disability Progression
While researchers have known that grey matter loss is associated with long-term disability, a study published earlier this year has provided a more detailed picture of that connection.
The researchers looked at how specific patterns of grey matter loss were associated with disability progression in patients with MS using a standard MS disability scale (EDSS).
The researchers found the strongest relationship between disability progression and the loss of brain tissue in the thalamus, the largest area of deep grey matter, which transmits sensory information to other areas of the brain. In a post-hoc analysis of MRIs from 1,214 MS patients and 203 healthy controls, baseline thalamic volume loss increased risk of disability progression by 37 percent in relapsing MS.
“The research continues to provide more evidence that loss of grey matter is associated with increased disability,” he said. “And grey matter loss is seen most intensely in the thalamus of patients with MS.”
Cognitive Impairment Shouldn’t Take a Backseat to Disability
The new study makes the case for grey matter loss as a predictor of disability progression in MS, but it did not look at cognitive function—which can also worsen as MS progresses. DeLuca wasn’t surprised. “Cognitive impairment just doesn’t get the same attention as disability in MS studies,” he said. “But it really should.”
Many patients agree. In a recent survey conducted by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America and sponsored by Celgene, 27 percent of respondents said maintaining cognitive function was the most important consideration in the management of their MS. Only the prevention of disability progression was reported by more respondents (45 percent).
While cognitive impairment has been recognized in MS for more than a century, a test to measure cognitive function wasn’t developed until 2001. Researchers know that up to 65 percent of people with MS experience some level of cognitive impairment, and the National MS Society recently announced new recommendations for managing cognitive care for people with MS.
So could the same patterns of grey matter loss associated with disability also be related to cognitive impairment? It’s quite possible, according to DeLuca. “Thalamic damage already has an established relationship with cognitive decline,” he pointed out. “And grey matter loss is seen most intensely in the thalamus of patients with MS. So it’s probable.”
The more specific we can be regarding the role of grey matter loss, the better we can care for patients with MS.
Measuring Grey Matter Loss in Practice
So far, doctors don’t routinely use grey matter loss as a predictor of disability or cognitive impairment when caring for patients, but DeLuca believes that maybe they should consider it. “Grey matter loss could be a trigger for clinicians to watch their patients over time and monitor for potentially related problems,” he explained.
Here’s how cognitive impairment impacts multiple sclerosis. pic.twitter.com/Xuyhu9D0Lk
— Celgene Corporation (@Celgene) September 14, 2016
Given current evidence, DeLuca would like to see more trials differentiating grey matter loss from brain volume loss in general. But the main goal, of course, is to identify new ways to look at cognitive impairment. DeLuca is hopeful.
“I think we’ll start to see further research that show the correlation between grey matter and cognitive impairment as well as physical disability,” DeLuca said. “The more specific we can be regarding the role of grey matter loss, the better we can care for patients with MS.”
To learn more about how brain volume loss can affect patients with MS decades later, read “How Multiple Sclerosis Affects the Brain and CNS.”
Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women in the United States. And for America’s veterans, that risk is even higher as they are 25 percent more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than those who did not serve in the military.
As we recognize this year’s Veterans Day, Laurie Fenton Ambrose, President and CEO of Lung Cancer Alliance, explains how early detection and the treatment of lung cancer is evolving in and benefiting the veteran community, and what still needs to be done to improve the care for the men and women who have served our country.
Why are veterans disproportionately affected by lung cancer?
“Veterans are disproportionately affected for two key reasons: their smoking history and their occupational exposures. First, veterans have a higher prevalence of smoking than the civilian population. Many use smoking as a way to cope with the stress of their occupation and cigarettes were readily available to them while in service. At the same time, veterans were also exposed to a variety of chemicals that are linked with an increased risk of lung cancer, such as asbestos, Agent Orange, burn pits and chemical weapons.”
Why is treating veterans with lung cancer challenging?
“Research has shown that many Veterans’ Affairs facilities are not prepared to implement comprehensive lung cancer screening programs. More work needs to be done to support the investment in infrastructure and resources to offer more coordinated care to American veterans with lung cancer as quickly as possible.
We also need to address the stigma associated with having lung cancer—which affects how the disease is both resourced and advocated for — and the comorbidities that many veterans face in addition to lung cancer.”
How is Lung Cancer Alliance working to improve care for veterans with lung cancer?
“We are working with military facilities and programs to reduce tobacco use and exposure. We are also working on awareness campaigns to alert veterans to their elevated risk for lung cancer as well as directing them to responsible screening and care so that we catch and manage the disease early.”
Why is early detection so important?
“Because it can save your life. Just like other diseases with approved screenings, you see higher survival rates in those whose disease has been caught early by screening. Now lung cancer can join this fold. Simply put, if you find lung cancer in its earliest form, you improve your treatment options and your quality of life. But right now, approximately 75 percent of lung cancers in the general population are diagnosed at late stage when there are fewer effective treatment options.
We need to highlight the benefits of screening and make sure that it is made available to our veterans. Studies have shown that low-dose CT screenings can decrease lung cancer death rates if we provide adequate resources and infrastructure. It’s key that we make sure everyone at risk—including our military community—is aware that these screenings are available to them.”
We’re at a pivotal moment right now with lung cancer screening and treatment advances, and we are seeing more lung cancer survivors than ever.
How are the efforts to improve screenings going so far?
“Screening is a fairly new preventive service. The federal government gave a green light just four years ago for coverage. So, we are now working hard to “ramp-up” this service in communities across the country. This involves bringing national awareness to the issue as well as educating providers and those at risk of the benefits and risks. We are also committed to making sure screening and care is being provided in the most responsible way in medical centers and considering how we collect information to help further improve early detection and treatment options. It is not easy. It takes time. But we are focused on moving this forward as rapidly as possible.
The challenge I see is that there isn’t the same sense of urgency and focus around lung cancer screening as we have seen with other cancers such as breast and colon. That’s likely related to the stigma around this disease. We really need more national attention on this issue.”
How are new treatment options helping patients with lung cancer?
“New treatment options for patients with lung cancer are improving care and bringing hope. For example, we have more targeted therapies and immunotherapies being paired with chemotherapy to treat lung cancer today than we have had in decades.
When you combine these new therapies with the ability to detect lung cancer earlier, outcomes can be more favorable for early stage patients. This one-two punch is making a dent in the high mortality rates. We’re seeing five-year survival rates rise to 19 percent; a leap forward from where we were in the 1980s, when five-year survival was only 13 percent. We’re at a pivotal moment right now with lung cancer screening and treatment advances.”
What else should veterans know about lung cancer?
“No veteran should ever feel alone. We are ready to support them. That’s what Lung Cancer Alliance is here to do. Veterans should know that there’s a place where they can go to feel part of the community and find information. We are honoring their service by making sure our service is there for them.”
To learn more about how researchers are developing new treatments strategies for lung cancer, read “Hitting Moving Targets in Lung Cancer Subtypes.”
Over the past year, doctors have seen promising results from studies investigating new treatment approaches using chemotherapy for patients with pancreatic cancer, a disease that remains among the deadliest of cancers. Yet 38 percent of pancreatic cancer patients received no treatment at all within one year of diagnosis, according to study findings.
“Those results are not surprising as therapy for pancreatic cancer is rarely curative,” said Gabriela Chiorean, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist and researcher at the University of Washington. “Most pancreatic cancers are diagnosed at a stage where the goal is to prolong survival—not to cure the disease. Some physicians and patients may be less willing to choose treatment because of that.”
Chiorean believes that more patients with pancreatic cancer could benefit from and should be offered treatment for their disease. During this year’s Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Chiorean is raising awareness of both this issue and the progress that’s been made in pancreatic cancer treatment.
The Harsh Reality of Pancreatic Cancer
While the statistics may seem dismal, they are improving. From 1993 to 2013, while the median overall survival for metastatic pancreatic cancer patients remained steady, more patients achieved long-term survival—defined as a year or longer. According to Chiorean, these survivors were diagnosed at a younger age and may have been more likely to receive treatment.
Chiorean believes that survival rates would further improve if more patients were offered treatment. But as research point out—many patients do not receive treatment. Chiorean’s personal experience backs the study findings; she frequently sees patients who were not offered treatment in other centers and are looking for a second opinion.
Another reason patients may not receive treatment is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose. As a result, 80 percent of patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage when curative treatments are not an option. By the time the cancer is detected, oncologists may be hesitant to offer treatment because they fear their patients are too fatigued or ill, and unable to tolerate treatment regimens, according to Chiorean. It may be the physician’s intent to relieve stress on both the patients and their caregivers.
Even more challenging, pancreatic cancers can only be removed less than 15 percent of the time. “If you can’t take it out of the body, eventually it will start spreading unless it has already spread,” Chiorean said.
Managing treatment toxicities and a patient’s quality of life can also make a difference, according to Chiorean. She tries to prevent side effects by adjusting treatment dosing as needed and continuously asks patients how they are feeling before each treatment.
“That’s where the art of medicine comes into play,” she said. “We’re not treating everyone the same.”
Early Screening for Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer can present with broad gastrointestinal symptoms that can be diagnosed as peptic ulcer disease or irritable bowel syndrome, and sometimes it presents with new diabetes. “A clinician might treat patients for indigestion for a year, and then ultimately diagnose them with late-stage pancreatic cancer,” Chiorean said. “If a patient is losing weight and has new onset diabetes, they should be screened with an ultrasound or CT scan for pancreatic cancer.”
Researchers are working on ways to catch pancreatic cancer earlier. Imaging techniques to detect premalignant cystic neoplasms, and other benign conditions that may be precancerous, are being explored, as are biopsies followed by regular ultrasound screening for high-risk patients, including those with a family history of pancreatic cancer.
We’re learning more about the disease and can offer treatment options that allow patients to feel comfortable for as long as possible.
Pancreatic Cancer Care Is an Uphill Battle
Improving care for pancreatic cancer remains a struggle. The pancreas has limited blood supply, making it difficult for medications to penetrate it. But new treatment strategies are making in-roads. New therapy combinations are being used before and after surgery for patients with pancreatic cancer, and new approaches are being explored in clinical trials to make chemotherapy less intensive for some patients. Chiorean recommends clinical trials of pancreatic cancer treatments for eligible patients.
“Despite the statistics, there’s definitely hope in the future of pancreatic cancer treatment,” said Chiorean. “We’re learning more about the disease and can offer treatment options that allow patients to feel comfortable for as long as possible.”
To learn more about the patient experience with pancreatic cancer, read “Facing Each Day with Pancreatic Cancer, Hand-in-Hand.”
Celgene is a company built on a foundation of bold innovation to address areas of significant need for patients with cancer and other debilitating diseases. This unyielding drive has led the company to developments that have transformed the care of diseases like multiple myeloma and pancreatic cancer and has provided important new options for patients with psoriatic diseases.
As the company has grown, so has its commitment to innovation. In fact, the company has increased its investment in research and development by more than 36 percent per year on average since 2006, when its lead therapy for multiple hematologic diseases was approved. During this time, the company also built what would be a defining part of its research efforts, the distributed research model.
By coupling Celgene’s internal research and traditional business development efforts with a program focused on identifying and nurturing disruptive science outside the company, Celgene was able to option promising candidates for rare and debilitating diseases. The program currently features more than 50 collaborations with 21 unique compounds in clinical development.
“We are focused on great science, first and foremost,” said Robert Hershberg, M.D., Ph.D., Celgene’s Executive Vice President and Head of Business Development and Global Alliances. “We seek in our partners what we seek in our own scientific and development teams. Notably, we seek passion, a commitment to excellence, and a strong desire to bring novel treatments to improve patients’ lives.”
“The distributed research model—in place at Celgene for almost a decade—recognizes and embraces the fact that contributions to progress in human health can be readily seen in academic institutions, private foundations, small and large biotechnology companies, and in the pharmaceutical sector,” he continued. “Importantly, no single institution, company or entity can do this alone and there is an increasing interdependence on a range of efforts to bring this promise to patients. We seek partners in our core areas of scientific interest (Protein Homeostasis, Immuno-Oncology, Epigenetics, Immunology/Inflammation, and Neuroscience) and clinical interest (Hematology, Oncology, Inflammatory diseases) and hope to identify programs in adjacent, novel areas as well.”
One of the keys to the growth of the programs was to identify and incentivize this innovation early on.
“As products increase in both their complexity and their precision, intense support early in the development process is critical. The establishment of relevant pre-clinical models and deep interrogation of novel pathways provide the appropriate roadmap for moving early science forward towards the clinic,” continued Hershberg. “In early studies of these novel therapies in patients, an intense focus on ‘translational’ medicine—developing tools to gather as much data as possible in early clinical trials. These early efforts both improve the likelihood of clinical success and can dramatically reduce the timelines required to bring novel therapies to patients that desperately need them.”
Along with groundbreaking research, these partnerships also provide the opportunity to learn critical lessons in discovery research through new platforms for Celgene, and a chance to advance programs alongside an industry veteran for the partner companies.
An important example of this was the partnership with Agios Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The long-term research partnership provided the opportunity to evaluate multiple programs, to adjust the terms to fit each company, and most importantly, to deliver the first FDA-approved product to come out of Celgene’s distributed research model.
“Close collaboration from the very start has been key to the success of our relationship with Celgene” said David Schenkein, M.D., Chief Executive Officer of Agios. “By focusing on each other’s strengths, we were able to pursue the science and develop a new medicine, less than four years from the first in human study to approval in a blood cancer that had not seen a new medicine in nearly 40 years.”
Hershberg has a unique perspective on partnering with Celgene as he has now served on both sides of the model, in his current role as head of the company’s business development efforts, and as a partner during his time as CEO of VentiRx.
“Celgene has been on the leading edge of business development to engage external partners to extend our Research and Development footprint. Importantly, many of these partnerships allow and facilitate a partner’s ability to do what they do best—and to advance programs into early and mid-stage clinical development. The business structures are flexible and ideally designed to meet both Celgene’s and the partner’s unique needs,” said Hershberg.
Another long-term partner was recently in the news as well. Acceleron Pharma, alongside Celgene, announced top-line results from multiple pivotal studies of a collaboration that had been ongoing for more than ten years.
“Our collaboration is focused on developing and delivering transformational therapies to patients in areas of disease with few options,” said Habib Dable, President and Chief Executive Officer of Acceleron. “Because of our mutual commitment to this focus, we have advanced to the point where we are preparing for potential approval. Our shared experience has kept the combined team energized and on mission throughout.”
The close collaborations that make up Celgene’s distributed research model have bolstered a leading biopharmaceutical pipeline for Celgene, provided vital, early support for its partners’ promising programs and even delivered a new therapy to patients in need.
“The opportunity to partner early and leverage our research platform to identify potentially disruptive therapies has led to the opportunity to expand our collaboration twice already to encompass new targets and new areas of disease,” said Werner Lanthaler, Chief Executive Officer of Evotec AG. “We believe our work together across these multiple platforms have the potential to make meaningful impacts on patients’ lives and we continue to partner closely to make this happen.”
Celgene will continue to look for transformational science both within and outside of its walls as it seeks to deliver on its mission to improve the lives of patients worldwide. Successful partnerships, like those it has fostered already, will be essential in that effort.
In August 2005, Amelia List celebrated her first birthday, and her mother Julie breathed a sigh of relief. She had feared Amelia would develop severe food allergies, as her five-year-old sister Autumn had, by the time she turned one. But it was so far, so good.
Unfortunately, everything went downhill from there, Julie recalls. A month later, the entire family got the stomach flu. Everyone recovered well except for Amelia, whose vomiting and diarrhea continued. Six weeks later, she had lost 20 percent of her body weight. Julie and her husband took their daughter to a gastroenterologist, who diagnosed Amelia with eosinophilic esophagitis.
Having already joined several food allergy forums online, Julie knew what that meant. Eosinophilic esophagitis was not your typical allergic reaction to food. She turned to her husband. “We’re going to be one of those people whose kid can only eat one or two foods,” she told him.
More than 150,000 children and adults in the United States live with eosinophilic esophagitis, a relatively new disease that was only first recognized in the 1990s. There are currently no FDA-approved pharmaceuticals to treat EoE. Symptoms may be managed with elimination diets and other methods. Julie is sharing their story to raise awareness of the disease, with the hope that more can be done to improve their daily struggle.
Julie knew eosinophilic esophagitis was not a typical food allergy, but she was stunned when their local gastroenterologist told them that he could only diagnose but not treat the condition. In fact, at that time, there was no doctor near their home in South Carolina who treated this rare disease. For the next four years, the family traveled eight hours to Cincinnati to see a specialist whenever necessary.
The doctor explained that proteins in the foods Amelia was eating were triggering a type of white blood cell called eosinophils to inflame her esophagus. This inflammation led to her vomiting, difficulty swallowing and recurring stomach pain.
Amelia underwent food trials to identify her food triggers, eating one or more foods at a time for two months to see whether they made her sick. If they didn’t, she’d get an endoscopy to check her upper digestive tract for inflammation. Her doctor would put her under anesthesia and insert a flexible tube with a camera into Amelia’s upper digestive tract.
Her doctor also took six to ten biopsies throughout the esophagus to determine if eosinophils were present. “The biopsies can reveal if eosinophils are present and causing damage that is not visible to the eye,” Julie said. “We never knew if food was safe until the biopsy results were returned.”
She went through this process with a dozen foods. To get her required nutrition, Amelia was given an amino-acid based formula through a gastric feeding tube. “The formula had no proteins that would trigger allergies, but it tasted terrible,” Julie said.
We never tell them they can’t do anything.
We’ve tube-fed Amelia while hiking.
In 2007, the List family received more devastating news when their middle child, Abby, was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis at the age of six. Studies have shown that siblings of someone with eosinophilic esophagitis are at increased risk for the disease, suggesting a role for genetic factors. Environmental factors are also thought to have a role.
Then in 2016, Amelia had a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to white rice, her first allergic reaction unrelated to her eosinophilic esophagitis. Her immune system reacted, and Amelia soon found she could no longer eat any of the foods she previously tolerated.
Amelia resumed consuming formula through the gastric tube but then started reacting to that, too. To help tolerate the formula, she takes medication twice a day. She once again began food-testing with endoscopies to validate new safe foods. Since her initial diagnosis, Amelia has had 32 endoscopies and counting.
Today, she continues to consume formula, but it is not her sole source of nutrition. She can eat seven foods: apples, sweet potatoes, kidney beans, soy, millet flour, turkey and black olives. “For sure, you get sick of them, but I just have to keep eating them,” Amelia said. “I really don’t have any other choice.”
Growing Up Quickly
Amelia has been administering her own tube-feedings since she was a kid. Now 14, she has it down to a science. She eats this way three times a day, and she takes her equipment with her everywhere, plus the formula and water to mix.
Amelia reminds herself not to let eosinophilic esophagitis hold her back from living the life she’s dreamed of living. “It’s part of you, but it doesn’t control you. It’s not who you are,” Amelia said.
Going out—whether to school, on a field trip, to a friend’s house or on vacation—requires planning. If she goes to a party or sleepover, she brings a can of olives or a sweet potato in case she gets hungry. Sometimes, of course, she chooses to forgo events if she decides that they’re not worth the effort.
“We never tell them they can’t do anything,” Julie said. “We’ve tube-fed Amelia while hiking. But they definitely analyze situations ahead of time, which most kids don’t have to think about. These kids are very responsible and have to grow up quickly.”
To learn more about how Celgene is committed to supporting research for rare diseases, read Supporting Research to Find Cures for Rare Diseases.
Celgene has long maintained a dual focus on not only the patients that its therapies treat but the employees at Celgene that work to develop those therapies and get them to market. In October, Celgene was ranked #9 on the Forbes’ World’s Best Employers 2018 list. This year Forbes also gave Celgene placements on the 2018 Global Growth Champions list and America’s Best Midsize Employers 2018.
Together with Statista, Forbes World’s Best Employers list was compiled from an analysis of more than 430,000 global employee recommendations. Along with 30 detailed questions, respondents were asked to rate their own employer and the likelihood they would recommend their company to a friend or family member. They also listed other companies they admired.
Among the qualifying factors, Celgene has continued expansion of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives which likely contributed to its high ranking. Parallel with these efforts, Celgene recently announced its participation as a founding member of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association’s Gender Parity Collaborative where several Celgene leaders now sit on the collaborative’s Gender Parity Council.
“Our ranking as one of the best employers in the world highlights Celgene special culture and the direct connection every colleague has to our patients,” said Joe Hand, EVP, Global HR and Corporate Services. “As our global organization evolves, we continue to look for innovative and genuine approaches to enhance our employee experience and attract and retain talented people.”
Celgene leadership also places a heavy focus on mentorship, volunteerism and employee inclusion groups. Women Advancing Leadership at Celgene and Celgene Pride Alliance are employee resource groups that offer employees opportunities to connect and network. Supported by Executive Sponsors who are members of the Celgene Executive Committee, these resource groups host events and campaigns that bring together Celgene employees in an inclusive and safe environment to advance the dialog of social awareness and acceptance and drive necessary change.
In 2018 Celgene employees also saw enhancements to many U.S. employee benefits including Work-Life benefits like increased paid parental leave, a “bridge back to work” policy that allows new parents to transition back to work on a part-time basis but with full pay, and a policy for flexible work arrangements, to name a few.
“We felt it was important that our policies matched our commitment to creating an inclusive environment for our employee base,” said Joe Hand. “We’re proud to provide more balance between employees’ personal and professional lives to enable our workforce to bring their best self to work at Celgene and to their families and loved ones at home.”
To learn more about Celgene continued progress toward Diversity; read our official Diversity Mission Statement.