The MND Association’s Director of Research, Brian Dickie explains more about ‘GM6’, also known as ‘GM604’, a drug in development by an American pharmaceutical company Genervon.
The Association funds a wide range of research that leads to new understanding and treatments, which may one day, bring us closer to a cure for MND. We are hopeful that the increasing international research effort into the disease will accelerate the development of an effective treatment for MND. However for non scientists I also fully appreciate how the ‘system’ often seems designed to impede rather than assist this process.
There has been much discussion online about the results of a small scale study of a drug called GM604, or GM6, produced by the American pharmaceutical company Genervon. You can read some general comments about the drug on our website. I’ve written this blog to explain in a little more detail why the research community is cautious about the results. Read More »
Dr Richard Bedlack is based at the Duke ALS Clinic in America. Back in 2009 he founded ALSUntangled and to start off MND Awareness week he writes about the group and what they’ve achieved in the past five years.
ALSUntangled started in 2009 as a method for helping people living with MND (commonly known as ALS in America) make more informed decisions about alternative and off-label treatments (AOTs) they were interested in. I wasn’t sure how it would be received by people living with MND or by other clinicians.
Unproven treatments are treatments that have not undergone rigorous testing for their safety and effectiveness by means of a clinical trial. Also, they are often not supported by any reliable evidence.
People or organisations offering unproven or ‘alternative’ treatments may suggest that they will work better than riluzole. They often claim they can cure MND or significantly slow disease progression. These remarkable claims are not supported by any scientific evidence.
The MND Association co-funds an international group of scientists and clinicians, collectively known as ALS Untangled to investigate unproven or alternative treatments for MND. This group look for the evidence behind these unproven treatments for people living with MND concluding with their own recommendations.
These reviews are freely available and are published Open Access. You can download the most recent review on propofol here.
“Thank you for your support of ALSuntangled! Dr Bedlack et al. are doing wonderful work on behalf of people living with MND everywhere!” – Doug Hetzel, USA
A neurologist’s point of view
Association-funded researcher Prof Ammar Al-Chalabi explains his views on unproven treatments:
Many people with MND seek out unproven treatments because of the very difficult situation they and their families are in. My advice is that this is generally OK if the treatment is not harmful, is not expensive and is not obvious quackery. The difference of opinion between medical staff and people with MND mainly comes in the first part – whether the treatment is harmful. As doctors we are taught, “first do no harm”, whereas someone with MND will often say they are dying anyway so it makes no difference if the treatment is harmful because there might be a benefit. This is a powerful argument that can only be countered by the point that someone may have a slow form of MND and be shortening their life significantly or may greatly reduce their quality of life.
“I see people who are desperate, spending tens of thousands of pounds on treatments that are definitely pointless, like stem cell therapy consisting of giving an unknown substance intravenously at an unlicensed clinic. I see others who shun conventional medicine because they believe in alternative therapies, even though conventional treatments have a known side effect profile and alternative treatments do not. As medical staff we have an ethical obligation to provide clear advice in these situations, but I have not had a life threatening illness before and cannot say how I would react, so there is always a seed of doubt in my mind about whether I am doing the right thing.”
A person living with MND’s point of view
Charlie Fletcher is living with MND and explains her point of view on unproven treatments after reading the new Sense about Science booklet:
“Having been diagnosed with MND and confronted by the stark reality that there is no cure and incredibly limited medications available, was a hard pill to swallow. To then be bombarded by the media with advert after advert of extraordinary treatments and radical cures was overwhelming. Those with long-term illnesses tend to have a heightened sense of impending doom and a desperate need for hope so it is not surprising that many are swayed by these claims. I will admit that at times the little voice in the back of my mind suggests I might be overlooking the answer I’m after, but as a natural sceptic I am not likely to be tempted unless there is substantial evidence to support these theories.
“Whilst I can appreciate the draw of untested drugs and alternative therapies, I am not about to start licking trees on the off chance. However, medical research is an integral part of the search for possible treatments for diseases like MND and I am fully supportive of the incredible work being done. In my opinion, participating in clinical trials of drugs and methodologies is beneficial in the development of our knowledge of the disease and eventually a cure, and therefore, is something for which I would willingly offer my assistance.
“It is often difficult to separate the head from the heart, particularly for family and friends who are naturally driven by their need to make things better. The passing on of unlikely remedies and anecdotes for seemingly successful treatments, in my personal experience, is more of a hindrance than a help. Following all this advice can be exhausting, time-consuming and expensive, but more importantly it can create false hope, which can have a devastating effect especially when something doesn’t work.
“To my knowledge there is only one drug available and it is not even close to a cure; as far as I’m concerned, if the only drug that has passed its clinical trials and can be prescribed barely makes any difference, I am not likely to be convinced by the promises made by the latest, untested ‘miracle drug’.
“I find the information presented in this booklet an accurate and in-depth view of the realities of long-term, degenerative conditions and for this reason felt moved to add my contribution.”
Dr Rick Bedlack, founder of ALSUntangled speaks at the International Symposium about assisting patient choices. Dr Belinda Cupid, from our Research Development Team explains more:
Neurologist and natty dresser Dr Rick Bedlack, from Duke ALS Clinic in North Carolina USA, took on a challenging topic of patient decision making at this afternoon’s session of the 23rd In ternational Symposium on ALS/MND from the perspective of different decision making models.
In quite a philosophical talk, he framed the discussion of the different models of doctor – patient relationships from a discussion that he’d had with one of his patients. An educated patient accepted Dr Bedlack’s offer of riluzole and management of their care through a multidisciplinary team care approach, but declined to participate in a research study. The patient explained that they were going to pursue an unproven treatment that they’d heard about. Dr Bedlack commented that “their decisions bothered me and I started to think about why they bothered me”.
Starting with their refusal to participate in clinical trials, from one perspective, slower enrolment…
We are aware that a number of MND organisations, forums and people living with MND have received spam messages regarding a gentleman who claims that he can stop the deterioration for MND through an ‘electro medicine’ treatment. He urges readers of the message to reply to his email so that he can provide his proof. We are concerned about this as the mailer, a Mr Oholiav, is selling an unproven treatment for MND that could either be harmful, or non-existent – either a ‘snake-oil’ salesman or a complete hoax.
Trust in evidence not hearsay
We are aware of countless internet sites and scams that offer unproven treatment regimes that ‘prove’ the effectiveness of treatments through anecdotal evidence: through quotes from people who have taken the treatment; through articles in the media and other publications that have not been peer reviewed; case study reports; and documents written by ‘Drs’ that look credible at a glance. However, these treatments have not been through clinical trials, and so there is little proof whether a treatment is safe or beneficial.
A treatment is proven to be effective through carefully controlled clinical trials that test both safety and effectiveness. Trials have to be very carefully designed and carried out to ensure that the treatment is tested in the most unbiased circumstances possible, while giving the treatment the best chance of showing that it is safe and effective. If a treatment successfully shows this through trials, then treatments can be licensed for use. Clinical trial results can then be published in reputable scientific journals – the cornerstone of knowledge sharing in terms of research.
Without researchers publishing their results, and their studies being reviewed by their peers for integrity, we simply wouldn’t know what to believe. Allowing your work and your claims to be subjected to peer review is the internationally recognised way of evaluating research work and medical treatments. And by researchers sharing their knowledge and experience in a controlled setting – through publishing peer reviewed scientific journal articles- we can trust in evidence, not hearsay.
As I’m writing this, we’re in the process of proof reading study overviews (abstracts) ready for the International Symposium on ALS/MND to be held in Sydney, Australia from 30 November to 2 December this year. It’s a real opportunity for researchers, clinicians and health and social care professionals to come together to share their recent study results – their evidence.
Flitting between reading the abstracts (which I must add have been peer reviewed), Mr Oholiav’s unproven treatment email, and our news that we’re now part of UK PubMed Central (read Belinda’s Blog entry published this morning for more information on this great news) is a real chalk and cheese affair. It’s a definite case of comparing how research should, and should not, be shared.
There are hundreds of researchers, clinicians, and health and social care professionals around the world dedicated to ending MND. These are the people who methodically set up their research projects; who place great care and attention in publishing their research papers in reputable journals; who attend the International Symposium on ALS/MND to learn about current avenues of MND research; and who share their knowledge with other researchers from around the globe through the appropriate channels. These are the people who have the right tools to unlock the secrets of MND.
We believe that exceptional claims require exceptional evidence. We believe too, that allowing treatments to be made available which have not been through the established clinical trial processes can encourage unscrupulous individuals to market ineffective treatments for financial gain and provide false hope to patients and their families.
We have already received feedback from a number of people affected by MND who have been emailed by Mr Oholiav who have informed us of their anger and upset over his correspondence. They have told us that they have deleted the email as they know it’s content is full of mis-information.
But we know that some people will want to explore unproven treatments as they see it, understandably, as a beacon of hope. This is why we urge anyone contemplating an unproven treatment to contact the research team here at the Association so that we can give them the latest information on unproven treatments to help them make an informed decision.
If you’ve received an email from Mr Oholiav, please let us know your thoughts by commenting below.
We have been made aware that there’s a new kid on the block in terms of unproven treatments, which is a new route of administration of stem cells at the X-Cell stem cell clinic based in Germany.
As a brief background of the story to date, last year, a group of international researchers collectively known as ALSUntangled investigated the claims of X-Cell.
ALSUntangled wrote, and published an article (in the journal ALS) on the X-Cell clinic which concluded that until they demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of their stem cell treatment through a rigorous clinical trial that they would not condone X-Cell centre’s protocol for people living with MND. We wrote about this in our ‘X-Cell Stem Cell Centre has been investigated by ALSUntangled’ blog article.
X-Cell has now adapted their strategy to use intravenous (IV) administration for stem cells, meaning that the cells are delivered into a vein in the arm rather than via surgery on the brain or spine. X-Cell claim that they are able to use this new, far less invasive route of administration because they also give patients IV mannitol to help the stem cells gain access to the central nervous system. Mannitol is a drug used to draw water out of the brain in cases of cerebral oedema (swelling of the brain). There has been research into mannitol use to ‘open’ the blood brain barrier for chemotherapy to improve delivery of drugs to tumors in the brain. However, there is a big difference in trying to get a reasonably small chemical through the blood brain barrier – which in real life terms is like a sieve from the blood through to the brain, and trying to get comparatively huge stem cells through the blood-brain barrier. Unless research is published to demonstrate that this is possible, then it is an unproven method.
We are aware that unproven treatments can seem attractive to people affected by MND given the lack of a treatment. However, they often come at a large cost and have not demonstrated their effectiveness in rigorous clinical trials. To find out more about what makes a good clinical trial, visit our website: ‘what makes a good clinical trial’, or ‘unproven treatments’.
If you are considering an unproven treatment and would like to know the facts about the information they provide, please contact us at email@example.com. We provide the facts so that people affected by MND can make up their own minds about whether it’s an option they would like to consider.
*Updated – the X-Cell centre has now been closed due to the German Government tightening the loophole that allowed the centre to offer unproven stem cell treatments.
An unproven treatment called ‘Spirulina’, which is a type of blue-green algae, has recently been investigated by ALSUntangled*. They concluded that there is no evidence that Spirulina is effective for treating MND. Their findings also suggest that it could be toxic to people with MND.
In their investigative paper, which is free to download and easy to read (link at the bottom of this article), ALSUntangled discuss the research behind this unproven treatment.
The study that was critiqued examined the effect of feeding mice that model MND with Spirulina against those that were not fed the supplement. From their findings, the research group concluded that “a Spirulina supplemented diet may have future clinical benefit in treating ALS as an alternative or adjunctive therapy”. By reviewing the original research paper, ALSUntangled did not come to these same conclusions and identified significant flaws in the study.
For example, the study in question had no data on whether it slowed progression of motor symptoms. The treatment was also given before the onset of the disease, which is not clinically possible for people with MND.
ALSUntangled also used PatientsLikeMe.com as a resource to find out how many people had taken Spirulina. All six members with ALS (the most common form of MND) who had stated they were taking blue-green algae had decided to stop taking the treatment due to lack of effectiveness or cost –which had been reported as being between $50-$200 a month.
Importantly, the possible toxic effects of Spirulina are also discussed in the ALSUntangled paper, stating that it could theoretically accelerate the progression of the disease.
*ALSUntangled is a group of international clinicians/researchers in MND who investigate the claims of unproven treatments.
ALSUntangled also have a twitter page where people can suggest unproven treatments that they should investigate.
ALSUntangled are not alone in their endeavour, as within the research development team a number of us are able to make sense of the claims of unproven treatments for MND. We provide people with the facts so that people affected by MND can make up their own minds about whether it’s an option they would like to consider.
If you are considering an unproven treatment and would like to know the facts about the information they provide, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The room was crowded at 8am for the first presentation of day two, from Dr Doug Sipp (RIKEN Institute, Japan) on ‘Unregulated ALS/MND treatments and public education’. Dr Sipp provided an insightful and entertaining overview of the plethora of self-styled stem cell ‘clinics’ and the tactics they employ to attract business. During the talk, the song Snake Oil, by the country singer Steve Earle, kept going round my head….
“Ladies and gentlemen, attention please Come in close so everyone can see I got a tale to tell A listen don’t cost a dime And if you believe that, we’re gonna get along just fine….”
Time was given over for a discussion on the issue of unregulated treatments, moderated by Dr Rick Bedlack (Duke University) and involving myself and Steven Byer of the US charity ALS Worldwide. Dr Bedlack is one of the founders of ALSUntangled, a consortium of ALS clinicians that used the Internet and social media to investigate alternative and off-label ALS treatments. Although in its early stages of development, ALSUntangled is fast becoming a very important resource to people with MND, providing the sort of objective information that helps people to come to an informed choice on whether or not to pursue alternative approaches to treating their disease.
There was clear consensus among those in the room that clinicians, scientists and patient associations need to find mechanisms for working more closely together – in separating ‘hope from hype’ and providing a more accurate explanation of the potential uses of stem cells in both basic science and disease treatment. Stephen Byer talked about the two C’s: the need for closer Collaboration and sharing of information; and better methods of Communication. I added a third – Consistency – to the discussion. We don’t necessarily all need to be providing exactly the same message, as different individuals and organisations we may well have differing opinions, but we should be basing those opinions on the same level of information and understanding.
ALSUntangled have debunked yet another unproven treatment advertised on the internet. Publishing these results in a reputable journal is of the utmost importance as it means that their findings can be read and be trusted as a reliable source of information.
The unproven treatment that the group of clinician-researchers investigated was the Stowe/Morales treatment protocol for MND. The idea that the Stowe/Morales protocol proposes is that most diseases are caused by ‘infections and toxins’ – including MND. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this statement is true. The treatment regime that they offer to combat the ‘infections and toxins’ includes stem cell treatment and a number of other unproven treatments that are fraught with pseudoscientific terms and unjustified claims. The treatment regime comes at a jaw-dropping sum of about $150,000. As a spoiler: ALSUntangled did not find any evidence to suggest that the treatment regime would be beneficial to people living with MND.
We’re pleased that ALSUntangled have published their findings as a few months ago we received an enquiry on the ‘Stowe Foundation’, which is one of the companies that offer this unproven treatment regime. Here’s a snippet of the response that we gave at the time:
“Fundamentally, it is unrealistic for the Stowe Foundation to say that their methods can help any patient with any chronic illness. All diseases and disorders are so different from one another that it would be unrealistic to suggest that they can all be treated by the same means…
“If such a regime of treatments is to be used as a treatment for any disease (as they suggest) then it is important that the evidence they state is peer-reviewed and published. This way the rigor and validity of the research can be tested to assure the public that the information given is accurate. Unfortunately, I could not find any evidence to suggest that the statements made by the Stowe Foundation can be backed up by peer-reviewed articles and therefore its validity is questionable.”
In the article written by ALSUntangled on the Stowe/Morales protocol, they conclude that “ALSUntangled strongly recommends that patients with ALS (MND) avoid the Stowe/Morales ALS Protocol. The rationale for this exorbitantly expensive protocol is unsound. The specific treatments being used range from mysterious, to already disproven, to potentially harmful. No valid outcome measures are being followed and the discussion of safety and efficacy taking place between sellers and potential patients considering this is impossibly optimistic.”
Alternative treatments can be tempting if you have a disease like MND, for which conventional medicine can only offer one moderately effective drug. Unfortunately this temptation is easily preyed upon by clinics around the world that claim to be able to provide effective treatments or even a cure (at great expense of course), despite having no supporting evidence.
We often take enquiries from people with MND who are considering undertaking one of these ‘unproven’ treatments and want to know if we have more information about them. Often, all we can talk about is the lackof sound evidence that they work, so it can be helpful when a bit of hard evidence does come along – even if it’s suggesting that the treatment doesn’t work. This is the case with an article from the journal ‘Brian Pathology’, which crossed my desk recently.
Many people with MND have travelled to a clinic in Beijing to receive a type of stem cell treatment known as ‘olfactory ensheathing cell (OEC) transplantation’. This treatment is effectively experimental, having not undergone clinical trials, yet the Chinese clinic demands large sums of money from its patients and does not appear to follow their progress after treatment.
Independent neurologists who have tracked the progress of people with MND before and after treatment in China have failed to see any real improvement in their condition. Now, Italian scientists have presented in Brain Pathology some clues as to why this treatment isn’t working.
Two Italians with MND who had undergone the Chinese treatment generously donated their brains for use in research after they had passed away. This gave the scientists an opportunity to look at what had happened to the transplanted stem cells. They were able to see the tracks left by the needles used during the procedure and found that all of the tracks ended in different places, with none of them actually reaching the main motor neurone pathway from the brain to the spinal cord. The researchers did find some OECs, but they had been trapped within the needle tracks by the brain’s own defence mechanism – so the stem cells never got to where they were really needed. In addition there was no sign that the transplanted cells had produced any neurone-nourishing substances or turned into neurones or support cells – all mechanisms by which stem cells could potentially have some effect in MND. In light of all of this, it is not surprising that the researchers also found that brains showed all the typical hallmarks of MND degeneration and that their donors had experienced a typical progression of their disease.
This research may only have looked at the brains of two people with MND, but it all adds to the information we can give people who ask us about this treatment – and information means informed choice.