Biosimilars. When you hear the word how does it make you feel? Maybe a little skeptical. Maybe a little uncertain. Maybe a little leery. If so, you’re not alone. I’ve been on my current biologic more than 13 years and when I think about having to possibly make a switch in the future it makes me nervous, too. That’s why I called on IBD specialists and gurus Dr. Miguel Regueiro, Professor and Chair of the Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Christina Ha, MD, FACG, AGAF, Cedars-Sinai to help educate the patient community and put falsehoods and myths to rest. Biosimilars are here to stay so it’s imperative we get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
What is a biosimilar?
First things first, let’s get the definition out of the way so you know what we’re working with here. Biosimilars are not the generic version of the biologics many of us are accustomed to. A biosimilar is a product, usually a medication, that is formulated in a fashion that is similar to the “reference” product, also known as the “originator” medication. Think Infliximab (Remicade) and Adalimumab (Humira).
I love the way Dr. Ha explained this, “It’s like identical twins sharing the same DNA but having different fingerprints. With biosimilars, dosing, administration, optimization, monitoring, and plan of care is the same, nothing changes except the Infliximab is now Inflixilmab-dyyb, for example.”
How You’re Told You Need to Switch
You may be wondering how this conversation and discussion even starts and how it translates over to the patient experience.
“The physician and patient are contacted by the insurance company indicating that the patient must switch to a biosimilar. This allows for some discussion between the physician and the patient. Although this should be the fashion in which it occurs, I know that this is not always the case and sometimes the notification is last minute or done in a way that leaves little time for education and discussion between the administration of the next dose of biologic and notification by the insurance,” said Dr. Regueiro.
Cost Savings and Access to Patients
I want to preface this by saying the cost savings varies from patient to patient and is largely dependent on a patient’s insurance company or health plan that covers the payment of their medication.
Dr. Regueiro says, “To provide a simple overview, each insurance company/health plan will contract with a pharmaceutical company for a certain medication. Much of this is dependent on getting the best price for the insurance company. A biosimilar is typically cheaper than the original (originator/reference) medication and the insurance company will then list the biosimilar as its preferred biologic for that condition, e.g., Inflectra or Renflexis for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. This makes the approval of that biosimilar “easier” for the patient and therefore access better. The question of where the savings are realized is another matter. Even cheaper drugs do not translate to savings directly to the patient.”
If you’ve been on a biologic “originator” successfully and are told you suddenly must make the switch, it’s not uncommon. Dr. Regueiro says he has many patients who have found themselves in this position. His advice? Speak to your healthcare team, but also go to trusted resources for education, e.g., the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation website has some useful information for patients about biosimilars.
Addressing patient hesitancy
It’s no surprise this can be an emotional discussion. I try and envision myself being told that I had to switch after more than 13 years, and I know I would be crying because of the comfort and confidence I have had with my current therapy.
“The idea of switching to a biosimilar is fraught with concern. I typically acknowledge their concern, but then explain the data. There have been many studies that have shown that switching from a biologic to a biosimilar is well tolerated, is equally efficacious, and does not incur any different safety risk. I tell the patient that we technically cannot say that the biosimilar is the “same” as the biologic, but in essence it is. I also explain that I have had hundreds of my own patients switch and I have not seen a problem. In fact, in some patients I may get a drug level of the biologic before switching and then the same drug level of the biosimilar after switching and see no difference,” explained Dr. Regueiro.
For example, there is a blood assay for Remicade (Infliximab) that measures the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab. When Dr. Regueiro has had patients switch from Remicade to a biosimilar, e.g., Renflexis or Inflectra, and then measure the same exact drug assay, the results of the Infliximab level and antibodies to Infliximab are the same. The biosimilar works in an identical fashion to the original biologic, and the blood assays show the same results. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.
Let’s read that sentence again. The body “cannot tell” the original biologic from the biosimilar.
Dr. Hasays, “The key here is to understand that you are being switched to an equivalent not inferior agent. Biosimilars are rigorously studied for safety, effectiveness, antibody formation with a lengthier, more involved FDA approval process than generics.”
Why Biosimilars are NOT generics
A generic medication has the same active ingredient as the brand name medication. An example would be the generic medication mesalamine for the brand name medication Asacol. Asacol’s “active ingredient” is mesalamine and the generic is simply formulated as mesalamine. The “packaging” of Asacol makes it Asacol, but its active ingredient is mesalamine and is identical to the generic formulation of mesalamine.
Dr. Ha explains why biosimilars are not generics.
“Generics are chemical compounds where exact replicas of the active ingredient are possible. However, biosimilars are biologic agents, complex protein structures constructed from living cells. Exact replicas aren’t possible but nearly identical structures can be manufactured – remember, these are very sensitive compounds. That’s why these medications need to be refrigerated and handled differently than a generic.”
I asked Dr. Reguiero if there’s ever a situation where he advises against a patient being switched to a biosimilar. He said generally, no.
“The only main question will be if a patient has already been on a biosimilar after the originator biologic and then needs to switch to another biosimilar. This would be a “multiple switch” rather than a single switch from the original biologic to biosimilar. Based on the limited data to date, and similarity between all of the biosimilars and original biologic, I do not even see this as a problem, but we need more research to make a final conclusion onto multiple switches.”
“Delaying treatment to stay on a version of a medication that really is not meaningfully different than the biosimilar may lead to far worse consequences than staying on schedule by switching to a biosimilar. Remember, delaying anti-TNF schedules may increase risks of antibody formation, infusion/injection reactions, and flares. I am far more concerned about staying on schedule and not missing doses than I am the biosimilar vs reference,” said Dr. Ha.
What if a biosimilar fails?
If a biosimilar fails, Dr. Regueiro looks at it the exact same way as if an original biologic fails. For example, let’s take the case of biosimilar Inflectra for Remicade.
“If a patient is started on Inflectra as their first biologic ever and it stops working, I generally check blood levels to determine if the patient has developed antibodies to Inflectra and that this is the reason for failure. If they have developed antibodies, and the Inflectra has worked well for a long time, then I would switch to another anti-TNF, but not another biosimilar to Remicade. The reason for this is that if a patient develops antibodies to the biosimilar, they will form antibodies to the original biologic or another biosimilar of that same biologic. However, I would switch this patient from Inflectra to Adalimumab (Humira) or one of the other anti-TNFs if needed. I would do the exact same thing if the first biologic I used was Remicade and it failed due to antibody formation.”
I went on to ask Dr. Regueiro when he would switch a patient to a biologic medication from a “different class.”
“Let’s take the example of Inflectra or Remicade. If a patient is started on Infectra or Remicade and they have no response from the beginning, and their drug levels of Inflectra or Remicade are good (and they have not had antibodies again) this means it should be working and it is not – this is a primary failure of that medication. In that case, not only would I not switch to another biosimilar or back to the original biologic, but I would also completely switch away from the class of anti-TNF, e.g., Humira, Cimzia, Simponi, as the patient is likely a non-responder to all anti-TNFs. In this case, I’d move onto something like Entyvio, Stelara, Xeljanz, or Zeposia (depending on whether it’s ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).”
What’s coming down the pipeline for patients?
With all the biosimilars on the market and many more on the way—Dr. Regueiro and Dr. Ha say it’s quite likely all patients can expect to be switched off their current biologic at some point as insurance companies are able to get the biosimilar as a cheaper cost.
As far as savings programs, many of us are accustomed to with our biologics (I pay $5 a month for two injections), this would be dependent on what the company that makes the biosimilars offers and may look quite different to the originator biologic’s savings programs. However, I would anticipate the patient would not pay more for the biosimilar. There would either be a cost savings program with the pharmaceutical company that makes the biosimilar, or, more likely, the insurance company would keep the out of pocket cost the same for the patient.
Biosimilars are administered in an identical fashion to the originator biologic. So, you won’t be forced to go from doing a self-injection to getting an infusion. I asked Dr. Reguiero about Humira’s biosimilar in the future, and he anticipates that it will be citrate-free, just as the originator is now in the States.
Pediatrics and Biosimilars
As biosimilars come to market, the indications should be the same for the originator biologic. That is, if there is an approved indication in pediatrics for the originator biologic, the same should be true for the biosimilar. However, the FDA will make final guidance on the indications for a biosimilar and they could vary slightly on which diseases are approved and which age of patient approved.
What Patients Have to Say
Christina received a letter from her insurance company in June letting her know that Remicade was no longer approved and that she would be switching over to Inflectra in July. The insurance company reached out to her directly and had not informed her GI. She was five months pregnant and was stressed and anxious about switching medications in the middle of pregnancy.
“I have been on Remicade since September 2013 and it’s working really well for me. My GI was super supportive with my desire to stay on Remicade through pregnancy and agreed that I should not switch medications. In part of the letter for my insurance company there was an appeal process, which my GI did on my behalf. A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from my insurance company that my appeal was denied. I contacted my G.I.’s office and she had someone in her office do a follow up appeal. The insurance company finally agreed to approve me for Remicade through my due date, October 23rd.”
Christina’s baby was born October 11th, so she’ll be making the switch this week while she’s postpartum.
Vern lives in Canada and the government there forced him to make the switch.
“The cost is partially covered by the government. I was pissed to say the least. They kept telling me it was safe, but I wanted to see evidence it was safe to switch to a biosimilar after someone had been on a biologic long term. I never got an answer. Luckily, I’m doing fine, and I have not noticed a difference.”
Lizzy highlights the emotional struggle biosimilars burden patients with.
“Even though I don’t see an uptick in symptoms and my remissions has been maintained, emotionally the switch was really difficult. My insurance forced me to switch. I was extremely sick for a long time before starting Remicade while I was hospitalized. So, I was really afraid of the switch making me sick and of course it was horrible not to have a choice in my healthcare.”
Kelly attests to the emotional struggle and disappointment. She says she spoke extensively with her GI prior to making the switch and did her on own research.
“When I received the letter from my health insurance company telling me I would be forced to switch to a biosimilar I was disappointed. I had been on Remicade for more than two years and it had only recently put me into remission. But I knew the switch was coming, having heard from many people in the IBD community that they were being forced as well. I had already done research on the data from Europe and Canada showing that biosimilars of Infliximab had the same efficacy and safety profiles as Infliximab.
She’s now had two Inflectra infusions and hasn’t noticed any difference in the way her body handles the medication. Kelly is crossing her fingers for a continued great experience and hopefully no more frustrating insurance shenanigans.
Madelynn was on Remicade prior to being switched to Inflectra. Unfortunately, her care team and her insurance failed to communicate the change to her. She shockingly discovered the switch was made after proactively reading medicine notes on the patient portal.
“I was nervous about it, and a bit upset. Who wouldn’t be after being in remission with a medicine then having it randomly changed? I ended up researching quite a bit about it, which helped calm my nerves. I also asked more questions of my medical team. I was worried about the biosimilar not working and causing a flare and of possible side effects. Keep in mind, I have Remicade induced side effects already. Could Inflectra make them worse? When a medicine keeps you in remission, that is something you want to hold onto for as long as you can. If you are taking any medicine, never be afraid to ask questions, research, and advocate for yourself. If something does not work, speak up!”
Madelynn has only received one infusion of Inflectra, but so far, she feels well and notices no changes with her IBD.
A Word from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation
Laura Wingate, Executive Vice President of Education, Support, & Advocacy for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation encourages patients to learn as much as thy can about not just biosimilars but all treatment options available so we can be active and informed partners in making decisions with our healthcare teams.
“If you are informed you need to switch from a biologic to a biosimilar, you might be worried and that’s normal. But remember that biosimilars are just as safe and effective as your original therapy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your healthcare providers about the switch and why it’s happening and share any concerns you have with them. You can also contact the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation for additional information, education on biosimilars, and support.”
Helpful Resources on Biosimilars
If you have questions about biosimilars– talk to your health care team. The more education, resources, and support they can provide you with to bolster your confidence that the biosimilars are an important part of IBD treatment, the better. I know personally as someone who depends on a biologic to maintain my remission, that doing the research for this article has made me feel a lot more confident and comfortable about biosimilars and what they mean for the patient community.
There are a several great resources about biosimilars to check out:
Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: Biosimilars What You Should Know
Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Biosimilar Webinar from September 2021: MyIBD Learning: Understanding biosimilars: What IBD patients and caregivers need to know
American Gastroenterological Association