Systemic Sclerosis Patients Share Their Perspectives and Needs in Treatment Trials

Christine Kilgore

October 26, 2020

Patients with systemic sclerosis have variable disease progression but often experience debilitating fatigue, pain, and digestive issues – and they're extremely concerned about progressive organ damage, according to those who spoke at and provided input at a public meeting on patient-focused drug development for the disease.

The virtual meeting was part of the Food and Drug Administration's Patient-Focused Drug Development (PFDD) initiative, which began in 2012 and aims to provide a systematic way for patients' experiences, needs, and priorities to be "captured and meaningfully incorporated" into drug development and evaluation.

Patients Rate Their Most Impactful Symptoms

Dinesh Khanna, MBBS, MSc, a rheumatologist who directs a scleroderma research program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, attended the meeting after giving an opening presentation on the disease to FDA officials, patients, and other participants. In a later interview, he said that patients' ratings of their most impactful symptoms was especially striking.

Raynaud's phenomenon, digestive symptoms, and fatigue were the top three answers to a poll question that asked patients what symptom had the most significant impact on daily life, he noted, "and none of these are being [strongly] addressed right now [in clinical trials] apart from Raynaud's phenomenon, for which there are some trials ongoing."

He and other researchers are "struggling with what outcomes measures to use [in their studies]," said Khanna, the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of Rheumatology at the University. "My takeaway from the meeting as a clinical trialist is that we should be paying close attention to the symptoms that patients tell us are the most important. We should be including these in our trial designs as secondary endpoints, if not primary endpoints. We have not done that [thus far], really."

Approximately 200,000 patients in the United States have scleroderma, and approximately 75,000-80,000 of these patients have systemic scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, Khanna said in his opening presentation. Each year, he estimates, about 6,000 new diagnoses of systemic sclerosis are made.

More than 200 people – patients, FDA officials, and others – participated in the PFDD meeting. Patients participated in one of two panels – one focused on health effects and daily impacts, and the other on treatments – or submitted input electronically. All were invited to answer poll questions.

Raj Nair, MD, one of eight FDA leaders attending the meeting, noted in closing remarks that the pain experienced by patients with systemic sclerosis includes severe pain from Raynaud's phenomenon and pain caused by digital ulcers and by calcinosis. "We heard about how paralyzing the pain from calcinosis is, and that there are very few options for alleviating this pain," said Nair, of the division of rheumatology and transplant medicine.

Another takeaway, he said, is that the "fatigue can be severe and debilitating, leading to days where it is impossible to get out of bed," and that digestive symptoms can also be severe. "Reflux," he noted, "requires significant medical intervention."

Patients Describe Their Experiences

Rosemary Lyons, diagnosed with scleroderma 35 years ago, explained that while her skin is no longer hardened, she is overly sensitive to fabrics and skin care products and has difficulty with sleeping and eating. She moved away from family in the Northeast to live in the South where the climate is warmer, but even on a 90-degree night she needs a blanket and two comforters to curb the cold and attempt to sleep.

Impaired gastrointestinal motility has made food her "biggest problem" for the past 10 years, and because of GI symptoms, she can eat only one meal a day. She also experiences fainting, brain fog, and severe fatigue. On a good day, Lyons noted, she sometimes opts to do some house chores "knowing that I'll have 1-3 days of recovery."

Another patient, Amy Harding, said that 22 years after her scleroderma diagnosis, "the calcinosis I get in my fingers, elbows, toes, and ears tops all the prior sympto" The skin tightening and digital ulcers that she experienced in the first 10 years have tapered off, and while Raynaud's symptoms and heartburn have worsened, they are at least partly manageable with medications, unlike the pain from calcinosis.

Treating Symptoms vs Disease May Be Key in Risk-Benefit Analysis

In questions after patient presentations, FDA officials probed for more perspective on issues such as how fatigue should be assessed, the differences between fatigue and brain fog, the impact of calcinosis on functioning, and how much risk patients would be willing to assume from treatments that have side effects and that may or may not modulate the disease and slow disease progression.

Most patients said in response to an FDA poll question that they definitely (almost 40%) or possibly (almost 50%) would be willing to try a hypothetical new self-injectable medication if it were shown to reduce their most impactful symptoms but had side effects.

"I think what [we've been hearing] today is that whether we're working on the symptoms or the disease itself is [the key]" to patients' risk-benefit analysis, said meeting moderator Capt. Robyn Bent, RN, MS, of the U.S. Public Health Service, and director of the PFDD.

Anita Devine, diagnosed 13 years ago with systemic sclerosis, was one of several panel members who said she would accept more bothersome treatment side effects and risks "if the gain was control of disease progression and overall quality of life ... and organ preservation." Devine, who has needed kidney dialysis and multiple hand surgeries, noted that she previously took anti-neoplastic and anti-inflammatory agents "to try to stem the course of my disease, but unfortunately the disease did not abate."

Treatments for systemic sclerosis include vasodilators, immunosuppressive medications, antifibrotic therapies, and stem cell transplants, Khanna said in his opening remarks.

Trials of drugs for scleroderma have focused on early disease that may be amenable to treatment, with the exception of trials for pulmonary arterial hypertension, which affects some patients with systemic sclerosis. There are multiple FDA-approved drugs for pulmonary arterial hypertension and more trials are underway.

Outcomes such as pain and fatigue are included in many of the trials currently underway, but they tend to be lower-level secondary outcomes measures that cannot be incorporated into drug labeling or are more "exploratory in nature," Khanna said in the interview.

Khanna disclosed that he is the chief medical officer (an equity position) for CiVi Biopharma/Eicos Sciences Inc., which is developing a drug for Raynaud's, and serves as a consultant and grant recipient for numerous companies that make or are developing drugs for systemic sclerosis.

The FDA will accept patient comments until Dec. 15, 2020, at which time comments will be compiled into a summary report, Bent said.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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