Last week, Dr. Brian Wainger of Massachusetts General Hospital and Stephen Winthrop, Chairman of The ALS Association Board of Trustees, gave their unique clinical trial perspectives during the Northeast ALS Consortium (NEALS) webinar titled, “Retigabine Clinical Trial Update & Discussion with ALS Patient Advocate Stephen Winthrop.” For many years, The ALS Association has proudly partnered with NEALS to run ALS centered webinars to disseminate the most up-to-date information to the ALS community. Today’s post discusses the actively enrolling Retigabine clinical trial, which The ALS Association funds, as well as an honest perspective on what it is like to participate in ALS clinical trials.
Patient advocate and a championed NEALS Research Ambassador, Stephen Winthrop (pictured LEFT), joined the discussion to give his thoughtful perspective of clinical trial participation. Stephen was diagnosed with ALS almost four years ago and has been involved in over 12 ALS clinical trials – both observational (does not test a drug) and interventional (tests a drug), including the Retigabine study. The decision to participate in a clinical trial is a complicated question with arguments for and against. Stephen provides honest insights on the pluses and minuses of clinical trial involvement, while giving real life examples of some of his experiences.
“The quality and the experience will vary depending on the test and the individuals you are working with. It is a big question of fit,” Stephen explains.
He goes on to state, “The only way we are going to beat this awful disease is by finding a cure and one small way I can do that is by participating in clinical trials. Yes, it involves a needle stick and yes it takes a little time out of your day, but it is worth it. You are helping.”
Dr. Wainger (pictured RIGHT), one of the Principle Investigators of the Retigabine phase II clinical trial, gave a brief trial overview and update. The Retigabine trial is a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study to test the drug as a potential treatment for people living with ALS. The trial is actively recruiting at 12 sites in the U.S. The primary goals are to measure the effects of Retigabine on upper and lower motor neurons (i.e. the cells that die in ALS) physiology in people with ALS and evaluate safety outcomes.
During the first part of the webinar, Dr. Wainger explains the trial clinical rationale and goes over the study in detail including the goals, inclusion/exclusion criteria, the study timeline and what the study requires from its participants. The goal is to enroll at least 30 more ALS patients into the trial as soon as possible.
Watch the webinar here for all the detailed information.
The trial focuses on hyperexcitability of motor neurons. It was previously shown that people living with ALS have motor neurons (both upper and lower) that fire too many signals, meaning they are hyperexcitable. Too much firing leads to motor neuron damage. Retigabine is designed to reduce the over firing of motor neurons.
To physiologically test motor neuron hyperexcitability in trial participants in real time, the investigators use techniques called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and nerve conduction studies. These specialized tests are a way to measure the connections between motor neurons and muscles. TMS works by stimulating the motor cortex (part of the brain that controls muscle movement) with a magnet and records the response of the muscles in the hand. Nerve conduction studies evaluate the ability of motor neurons to conduct signals to muscles. An important secondary outcome of this study is to determine the potential for the use of these techniques for future ALS trials.
Stephen explains, “What they were trying to do using TMS, which looks like a ping pong paddle held above my head, was to try to make my right thumb to twitch by increasing the magnetic field. No pain was involved to see if my thumb twitched or did not twitch.”
One unique aspect of the Retigabine clinical trial to highlight is that each trial participant will donate a blood sample to be made into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs are then made into motor neurons in a dish, which reflect the exact genetic makeup of the person they were derived from.
The effects of Retigabine on patient derived motor neurons will also be tracked and compared to the impact of the drug on the patient. This is the first ALS clinical trial to attempt this type of comparison, which has potential as a prognostic and diagnostic tool. Patient derived iPSCs could even possibly predict how a subgroup of ALS patients respond to a drug, which would improve clinical trial design and recruitment.
Stephen adds, “There are so many aspects of this study that is adding to the knowledge base that Brian and his colleagues around the country and around the world are using that plant seeds for clinical successes in the future.”
“One of the things I have said about participating in a clinical trial is that when you are in a room with someone with ALS, do not forget about the human dimension of what you are looking at here. Don’t forget to say to a potential participant, ‘I am sorry that you have been struck by this awful disease,’ and just let that pause. Don’t forget to say, ‘Thank you or thanks for your small part.’”
“In my own experience, those seemingly routine personal touches go a long way, because in the end I do think their decision to participate is fueled in part by just a little whisper of a hope that this will maybe help me. The bigger piece is that you, as a participant, are part of an army of people – I truly believe – will bring an end to this disease.”
We are thankful to Stephen for giving his honest perspectives and we value his dedication to the fight against ALS. With passionate, committed physicians, researchers, clinic staff, allied professionals and especially clinical trial participants – both living with ALS and healthy – all working together in clinical trials, we are many steps closer to a cure.
Watch the full webinar here.