LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Thousands of Arkansans struggle with multiple sclerosis. Now some of them are showing remarkable improvement because of a new treatment option at UAMS.
Josh Martin is one of the first patients to complete the two recommended cycles of Lemtrada. It is a drug that was brought to market in late 2015, and roughly 40 people have starting taking it so far.
Martin was diagnosed with MS while a junior in high school in 2006.
“The disease was pretty stable all through college,” Martin said, “and within the last, I’ll say two years, it really started to get worse.”
“He’s had ups and downs,” explained Laura Barganier, a nurse practitioner at UAMS who has overseen much of Martin’s care. “He’s been in a wheelchair, he’s been in a walker. Most of the time when he came, if he could walk, he was real spastic, meaning he could not stand up straight, that his muscles were so tight in his legs that he couldn’t stand up, and he was dependent on the cane or having to use a wheelchair.”
Martin relied on daily injections for the first few years after his diagnosis, then switched to a daily pill regimen before his condition worsened.
“And so I kinda felt like, well, okay, this is my life now. I’m in a wheelchair and don’t have much hope for getting better, and so I’m going to have to re-learn exactly what my end’s gonna be, my end goal for my career, my family life.”
Dr. Lee Archer, the interim chair of the Department of Neurology at UAMS, said he had been closely watching studies about Lemtrada.
“Someone with mild disease, hopefully they’d never have to go to a drug like Lemtrada,” he explained.
He and the rest of the neurology staff compiled a list of potential patients while they waited for it to become available. Barganier was the one who recommended Martin.
“He was showing signs,” Dr. Archer recalled, “of breaking through the medicines that he was on, and so she made the case, she said, ‘we need to put him on Lemtrada. We need to go ahead and make that jump to a very strong medicine.’”
Martin started on Lemtrada in March 2016. It calls for five days of infusions, followed one year later by three days of infusions. After that, doctors check a patient’s blood once a month for five years to make sure the patient is not in danger of relapse or harmful side effects.
“Knowing exactly what to expect, you still have a little bit of doubt in the back of your mind,” Martin stated, “saying, ‘okay, well, I’m been in a wheelchair for over a year now, and then this is coming up, so try not to get too hopeful.’ But then it worked!
“I felt it the day of. And then that next week it got better and better, and then over the whole year I started to see more stability in my legs, get my strength back, and that was Year One. It just kept on going through this year.”
Martin went from a wheelchair to a cane to walking on his own in a few months. The quick recovery helped him overcome some of the fears he had about what his life might become.
“In the back of my mind,” he mentioned, “and I think hers, too, I was constantly thinking, well, am I going to have a cane walking down the aisle with my wife? Am I going to be able to dance with her at my wedding? And vice versa? And so that was something that, it weighs on you. And more her, I think, then me, cause the wedding’s a big deal. But even me, too, because you think about yourself as a, you know, you want to be able to do these things.
“And then when this treatment came through and I was walking without the cane, I was able to walk Reva down the aisle, and I was able to share my first dance with her. And so, that’s a milestone, and we got pictures and videos of that, and I’ll always be able to look at it and remember that, yeah, we beat MS at this time in my life and we’re able to do these things.”
Dr. Archer said Martin is not the only one of his patients to respond positively to the Lemtrada infusions.
“We’ve seen very positive results, especially when you consider: we’re putting the most severe people on this drug. We’re not putting the people with mild disease on this drug. So, when you consider that, we do think we’ve had very good results.”
He added that Martin might be an unusual case, in that he was put on the regimen shortly after his condition worsened. Dr. Archer believes that allowed his body to heal in a way that many other MS patients could not. But he expects that, as doctors spend more time learning how to manage the drug’s side effects, it will become a much more common treatment option for some of their toughest cases.
“I just really have been thrilled, you know, to, in the last few years, to have these really good options to start treating patients,” Dr. Archer said. “It’s really gratifying to be practicing at this time.”