Full Speed Ahead on MS Diet

After twelve weeks of anticipation, I finally learned which MS Diet I would be assigned for the duration of the study.

And the winner is…

confidential, at least until I complete the remaining six months of the trial.

I agreed to this stipulation, just as I agreed to injesting certain supplements, to saying yes to certain foods, to saying no to others. A clinical study is a group endeavor. Like any group endeavor, it comes with the perk of getting group support. Observe the above photo, in which I effortlessly glide above the lush tree canopy of the Arenal Volcano. Am I alone in this picture? Only because of how it is framed. A tico named Aaron suited me up, belted me in, and sent me on my way. A tico named Pépé was waiting for me on the other side. And a whole bunch of brave souls I never did meet set this whole contraption up in the first place with some fishing line and moxie.

My husband went ahead of me on the zip line. Unbeknownst to him,  I took some comfort in lighly touching the vibrating line as I watched him glide to the other side. I take no small comfort in having my husband accompany me on this MS adventure. I am grateful, too, for the many friends who have shown support and interest, and to my family of origin, who are all set to eat according to the diet when I fly in to visit them on Sunday. I do not take this challenge on alone.

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About to Launch

I am about to complete the Phase One, the Usual Diet phase, of the MS Diet study, which compares the efficacy of the Swank Diet with the Wahls Protocol in improving fatigue for people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

My husband and I concluded the Usual Diet Phase by going somewhere unusual. We’d never been to Costa Rica before. We wanted to eat our way through a new country without making any gringo requests for “gluten-free” anything. As it turned out, we ate very healthily there, and could have followed either diet without causing a stir. At one of the bed and breakfasts where we stayed, breakfast consisted of a neighbor’s eggs, seasoned with herbs growing in the kitchen garden, accompanied by juice squeezed fresh from oranges I’d picked myself in the backyard. And the coffee was picked right there in town. Food can’t get more local than that.  Yum! Costa Rica is a much healthier nation than the USA. (More on that in a later post.)

Tomorrow morning, my husband and I will take the seven hour road trip to Iowa City, IA, the site of the Diet Study.  This town has some sentimental value to us; it was here that I went to grad school, here where our only child was born. The hospital hold memories, too. It was here where I worked for the Telemedicine Resource Center, here where I had my first MRI, first lumar puncture, first spinal headache (when the puncture went wrong.) Here was where I got the diagnosis, twenty two years ago, that made me think I’d have less than ten years left outside a wheelchair. I’m still walking. But more slowly than I’d like.

On Wednesday, after my fasting blood is drawn, my food records are handed over, and my motor assessments are taken, my husband and I will meet with the study nutritionist, who will announce which diet we will be expected to adhere to for the next twenty four months. My hope, of course, is that whichever diet we get will reverse my disease course, that this will not be a mere twenty four month change, but the beginning of a lifetime shift. Are my hopes too high? My husband thinks so. He thinks we eat pretty darn healthy already. But he’s open to giving either diet a chance. I am so grateful for that.

The Swank Diet is a low saturated fat diet that eliminates red meat and high fat foods and includes whole grains and fat free dairy products. The Wahls Elimination Diet eliminates all grains, dairy, legumes, eggs, and nightshade vegetables/spices. Both diets include fruits and vegetables and dietary supplements.

Wish us luck!

Wahls Elimination Diet vs Swank Diet: Which Is the More Effective Treatment for MS Related Fatigue? Ms. Lab Rat jumps into the maze.

Some Background (faithful readers can skip to paragraph 5):

As my faithful readers know, I am a machine with faulty wiring. Multiple Sclerosis has somehow managed to convince my T-cells to attack the insulation that surrounds the nerves conducting all the information my body needs to function optimally. This insulation is called myelin, and my myelin is ratty with scars. (Multiple sclerosis=many scars.)

When I got the diagnosis, I refused to accept my fate. I tried the first medication I was offered. And when that didn’t work, I tried a second. And when that didn’t work, I entered a clinical study of a new medication, one, I was told, that really made a difference. But as will happen 50% of the time with clinical studies, it turned out I was assigned to the control group. I didn’t get the new medication. I got a placebo. And I got more scars.

I not only tried new medications, I tried new doctors. (I moved around a lot, at first, so that part could not be helped.) When my fourth neurologist gave me the dour news that I was doing very badly, and could expect to do worse, and then much worse until I died, well, I switched to a cheerier doctor. Who gave me the same dire news, but with a big smile. I dumped her, too. Instead I found a brilliant researcher, Bibiana Bielekova. Researchers are always looking for better ways to do things. So am I.

Long story short, I talked Dr. Bielekova into letting me try an off-label drug that worked with the immune system, rather than fight it. Daclizumab works by boosting the population of Natural Killer Cells, which function like the good cops in the Wild West of my immune system; the Natural Killer Cells keep the rouge T-Cells, or bad cops, at bay. Daclizumab worked. The T-Cells stopped attacking my myelin. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a study of Daclizumab. I was lucky enough to join the safety arm of the study, so I was assured a constant supply of Daclizumab. In the last ten years, this medication has been so effective, the T-cells have only once managed to create a new scar. Earlier this year, the FDA apporved Daclizumab under the name Zinbryta. On the day I injected my last dose of free study medication, I was accepted into a new clinical trial.

Faithful readers, jump in here:

Finding a drug that stabilized my MS only solved half of my problem. While my T-cells have stopped chewing on the fatty myelin that insulates my nerves, the many scars created by years of insatiable gobbling still interrupt the signals of my central nervous system. I have to cope with fatigue, pain, lack of coordination and balance, and a digestive system that’s out to lunch. Oh yes, and a brain that continues to shrink. You would think, then, that a person as proactive as I am would have immediately acted when I saw a very convincing TED Talk by a smart researcher who overcame an even worse case of MS than mine. Like me, Dr. Terry Wahls took the latest greatest MS medication. And like me, her MS only got worse. Dr. Wahls soon found herself confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair. Unlike me, Dr. Wahls is a physician. She read the latest medical research about diseases in which brains shrink. She read studies in which animal brains had been protected from shrinkage using fish oil, creatine, and co-enzyme Q-10. She started taking human proportioned dosages of these substances, and started getting better. This was her first round of self-experimentation. Slowly but surely, she tweaked her diet to include and exclude certain nutrients and ultimately found herself out of the wheelchair, biking to a full day of work as a doctor, and, of course, promoting the diet that saved her. She managed to get the Multiple Sclerosis Society to chip in 1 million dollars to fund a scientific study to compare her diet with the Swank Diet, one that has been  found to help people with MS for decades. I, who was somehow too intimidated years ago to follow the Wahls Protocol, have now agreed to be part of this study, which is going to be a much more onerous and complicated option than simply buying her book and following along. How much more onerous and complicated? I’ll share the details in my next post. But strange as it is, a Lab Rat is a Lab Rat. I would rather experiment on my diet in a study as a contribution to the greater public knowledge than to simply tinker with the diet on my own.

How about you? Have you ever participated in a clincial trial? Would you?

 

 

Finally…FDA Approves Zinbryta

IMG_4206I just read that the experimental drug I’ve been taking for ten years has finally been approved by the FDA and will be available as Zinbryta. This must mean Ms. Lab Rat is officially retired. After many years of commuting to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take the only drug that’s stopped the progress of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I am now going to have to buy the drug like everybody else.

You know what? I’m thrilled. I’ve hated having to hear heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of yet another person getting an MS diagnosis, getting an ineffectual, often expensive treatment, getting worse. They look at me, and I appear fine. I’m not, but I’m also not getting worse. My medication has worked. But for these past ten years, so many others with this disease have had no chance of seeing if this medication would work for them. My dear friend Debra died way too young still waiting for this day. As you can imagine, I’ve been on the phone a lot this afternoon, updating every person who has asked me about Zinbryta. This blog post is for those of you whose numbers aren’t in my contact list.

Until I let the world know the risk I took with this drug was worth it, I won’t feel that my tenure as a Lab Rat is well and truly over. But I guess an era has come to an end.

No more free flights to Washington DC for free MRI’s. No more free top level medical care. No more cognitive tests. (Hooray!) No more free monthly blood tests to check my liver function. (My liver is just fine, thank you.) No more nights on-site at the swank Safra Lodge. No more free stays at Bethesda Court Hotel. No more side trips to the awesome DC museums and zoo. No more viewings of indie films at Bethesda Row Cinema. No more delicious dinners at Bethesda’s many fine restaurants.

Do you get the idea that being in a clinical trial at the NIH has been a pretty sweet deal? It has been for me. But what I’ll miss the most will be the people: the brilliant doctors, nurses, and interns of the NIH. Why, even the taxi drivers usually had pretty fascinating back-stories to share, if given half a chance.

The one thing I regret about my participation in the trial is that I waited until the end to reach out to other guests at the NIH; like the older lady I met in the shuttle van who’d lost both breasts and lymph nodes to ineffectual and painful cancer treatments. The cancer had spread and spread for years until she was accepted for an NIH trial (“I couldn’t believe it, at my age.”) Now her NIH doctor extracts some of her immune cells, expands the cell population in the lab, and treats the cancer with it. Her cancer? Gone. The side effects? None. She’s one happy lady. The NIH complex is full of motivated people pursuing second chances, and I wish I hadn’t been too timid and/or respectful of their privacy to chat with them. (If anyone reading this is an NIH lab rat, consider this your invitation to introduce yourself.)

I’d meant for this blog post to be about Zinbryta, but I guess it’s just a big thank you note to the NIH.

Zinbryta has been safe and effective for me for years now, and I’m terribly eager to let people know that there is one more—I think far better—alternative out there to try. But if Zinbryta doesn’t work for you, do not despair. There are plenty of other MS drugs in the research pipeline. Maybe one day you’ll wind up as a Lab Rat, too. Clinical trials are not all MRI’s and blood work. They are also an investment for the future of others coping with disease. Who knows…maybe one of us will one day be a Lab Rat for the drug that winds up becoming the cure. I won’t stop hoping.