Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.
She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.
Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.
Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.
Engaged by Design
Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."
Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."
Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.
"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"
The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.
PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.
Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.
Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."
Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.
Increasingly, it may be the other way around.
The Patient Will See You Now
"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.
"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."
Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."
At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."
These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.
Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.
A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.
The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.
"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.
One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.
Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.
Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.
Dealing with Misinformation
An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.
But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.
"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.
In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.
Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.
Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."
Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.
As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."
After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."
Matt Fuchs is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has written on a variety of health topics, including profiles of older athletes defying their ages, for publications such as The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, and Medium's The Startup. He is also a science fiction author. Follow him on Twitter, @fuchswriter.