How a physician with Crohn’s in Ethiopia is helping others with IBD cope

She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.

In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.

“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”

Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)

“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”

Holding onto new hope

With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.

“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”

Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference

After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.

Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.

“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”

Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.

But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.

Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia

During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.

“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”

Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.

Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.

Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.

Email: fasikateferramd@gmail.com

Register NOW: IBD Insider Patient Education Program (January 30)

Calling all IBD patients and caretakers, the IBD Insider Patient Education Program is this Saturday (January 30) at 11 am CT. The virtual symposium will include IBD clinicians along with patient moderators. I’m excited to share I am one of three patients who will be speaking and sharing my experience during the live event.

The discussion will include updates from the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress, and we’ll talk about the following topics:

  • Getting the most out of your healthcare visit
  • Future therapies in IBD
  • Holistic Approach to IBD Care
  • Management of IBD Care during the COVID-19 pandemic

I’ll be teaming up with Dr. Brigid Boland, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Diego to talk about the future treatment of IBD. As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s nearly 16 years ago, it’s been extremely comforting to see how many therapies have become available since 2005 and all that is on the horizon. Below is a chart that was shared during the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress that shows all the therapies currently in research and clinical trials. When I started my biologic in 2008, I had two options. With each year that passes, we get closer to a cure and get more and more options to manage our disease if our current therapies fail us.

“I love the idea of designing a program with patient advocates where we are communicating to patients and their families about the latest breakthroughs in research and patient care. There’s never enough time in visits to talk about all the research going on that will impact their care now and in the future.  Ultimately, all the research and future therapies that are being studied are ways to improve patients quality of life and provide a lot of hope for everyone affected by IBD (patients, caregivers and providers),” said Dr. Boland.

As people living with a disease for which there is no cure, it’s in our best interest to stay up to date on all the latest happenings and developments. IBD can feel like a beast of a disease to be up against day after day. When you participate in learning opportunities like this that are right at the touch of your fingertips you empower yourself as you make decisions and grow through your patient journey. It’s like the education saying, “The More You Know.” As you make decisions about how you manage your Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, as you take on flares from a hospital bed, as you navigate life milestones like career and family planning, having resources like this in your arsenal of knowledge will only help you advocate for yourself and collaborate with your care team.

It’s not too late to register! Click here to sign up and can’t wait to “see” you Saturday!

Clinical Trials: How the IBD Community Can Drive Breakthrough Research

Clinical trials are the backbone of medical breakthroughs and the lifeblood for the future of treating diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. When I started on my biologic treatment in July 2008 to get my Crohn’s disease under control, there were only two treatment options on the market. Fast forward to 2020, and now there are 12 biologic treatment options for IBD. This is all thanks in part to clinical trials. This piece has been entered in the Patients Have Power Writing Contest run by Clara Health designed to raise awareness about the importance of clinical trials. I am passionate about educating others on this topic with the hopes of raising awareness about the power of breakthrough research.

It’s promising and hopeful to know that as we speak, according to ClinicalTrial.gov, there are thousands of clinical trials geared towards IBD research underway around the world! Despite the pandemic, recruitment and patient enrollment for clinical trials are still underway. While there may be 12 biologic treatment options on the market, there are still so many patients who build up antibodies to every drug they try and have nowhere to turn. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation finds one-third of patients do not respond to initial IBD treatments. It’s imperative more options become available for our community not only now, but in the future.

Talk it out with your care team

By communicating with your gastroenterologist, you can learn more about the options available and how to find a clinical trial that is tailored to you and fits your needs. By participating, you can help shape the treatment landscape for the future and have a hand in pioneering innovative therapies. Some patients may shy away from clinical trials, thinking they’d be a guinea pig, while others are desperate to improve their quality of life and weigh the benefits as being greater than the risks. It all comes down to the patient population being better informed of what it’s like to be a clinical trial participant and how safety is paramount.

Understanding the safety measures to protect clinical trial participants

Prior to a clinical trial starting, it’s important to understand there are a lot of hoops to jump through. When it gets to the point where patients like you and me participate, the research process on the new treatment has already been going on for more than a decade. According to Clara Health, first the treatment is tested in lab cells and animal studies. Then, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets involved and must give its stamp of approval for a clinical trial to get underway.

Clinical trial participants can have peace of mind knowing they’ll receive top notch medical attention from start to finish and be observed for any potential safety concerns. Every single potential side effect is documented and shared by the study team so that all participants are aware of any new risks, benefits, or side effects that are discovered during the trial.

When you think of participating in a clinical trial it’s empowering to know you are not only possibly helping yourself, but the entire IBD community. The future of how our disease is managed and treated depends on patients like us to step up to the plate. New treatments and therapies are dependent on us. Treatments can’t be created without us. So often the “what if” looms over our heads as IBD patients, in a negative way. With clinical trials, the “what if” signifies endless possibilities, hope, change, and breakthroughs that could ultimately shift and inspire what the future of care looks like for not only us but future generations who will be up against the beast that is Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has many resources dedicated to this topic that are sure to put your mind at ease.

To learn more about clinical trials head to Clara Health’s website.

The future of biologics and the changes coming down the pipe

This article was sponsored by SmartTab. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

The future of IBD care and treatment is constantly evolving and there’s a lot of hope on the horizon for the patient community. Think back to the moment your physician discussed starting a biologic for the first time and how daunting it was to imagine giving yourself an injection or getting an infusion for the rest of your life. It’s a heavy burden to bear for many reasons.

This is where SmartTab comes in. SmartTab is a digital medicine company focused on drug delivery and improving patient care, comfort, and compliance. Their main application, the InjectTab, would give people the option of using the current syringe or autoinjector used to give biologic medication or instead have a person swallow a capsule that would deliver the active ingredients to either the stomach or the small intestine. This initiative is making waves in a big way in both the patient, pharmaceutical, and technology industries. SmartTab was recently named a Tech Crunch Disrupt 2020 Top Pick.

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As someone who has been giving myself injections for over 12 years, this is music to my ears. My next question was what this means for those on infusions.

Robert Niichel, Founder and CEO of SmartTab, says, “We will start with the biologics deployed through a syringe and needle and then move to biologic infusions. Imagine if you take that infusion dose and instead take a smaller dose of the same medication as an ingestible capsule once a day. You now have reduced the amount of drug to a daily amount, side effects would go down because you’re not having to process this entire bolus and keep in mind that some of these drugs, no matter what it is, when you have an infusion, whether it’s to treat Crohn’s or receive chemotherapy, your body has to process that out through the liver or the kidneys. It’s stressful on the metabolism and the organs. Our goal, is that one day, regardless of whether it’s an infusion or an injectable, that you’ll take those drugs via an InjectTab capsule.”

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Keeping patients in mind every step of the way

SmartTab is determined to limit the anxiety associated with managing diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. The diagnosis and living with a chronic illness can be challenging to cope with, no matter how many years you’ve had it. It’s exciting to think what the future will hold for the IBD family.

“If physicians could go to people and say, we are going to start you on a biologic, you will take one capsule, every week, that’s a lot less of a burden than finding out you need to give yourself injections or spend hours with an IV getting an infusion. Your compliance goes up, patient outcomes, go up. At the end of the day, we’re trying to figure things out so people can lead better and more comfortable lives,” said Robert.

Getting InjectTab FDA-approved

SmartTab has the technology of the capsule finalized and they are starting a pre-clinical animal study next month. The InjectTab will inject an active ingredient into the side of the stomach.

“We will then do blood draws to collect the different levels of the active ingredients. Once that is complete, we will move on to human clinical trials and then onto FDA clearance, meaning approval of a device. Once we have that clearance, then we can combine our InjectTab with other active ingredients. Then we would seek out strategic partners to combine a prescription drug with our InjectTab. We would then do human studies.”

A lot of the heavy lifting for the actual technology has been completed, now it’s all about the clinical studies. Robert says the good news is that they’re not working on getting a new drug approved, since existing biologics will be used with the InjectTab technology.

“We believe that five years from now, if you take a biologic, you will no longer need to be doing a self-injection, there will be more options than syringes or needles to get your medication. You could just take a capsule. Whether it’s once a day or once a week, it will be as easy as taking your vitamins and moving on with your day.”

The cost benefits of a capsule vs. an injector

Right now, autoinjectors are typically hundreds of dollars. The InjectTab will range from $10-$50 a capsule, so right away there’s a significant cost reduction per use.

Robert says SmartTab is really counting on the insurance companies to look at this and say they’ll reimburse for the technology to deploy the drug because now patients are compliant and have reduced office visits and disease progression that can lead to hospital stays and surgeries.

SmartTab is currently in talks with several pharmaceutical companies, because that is the path to commercialization and making InjectTab a game changing reality for patients. Initially, the capsule technology will be available in the United States and then Europe. InjectTab will be geared towards the adult population first.

Life with IBD can be a tough pill to swallow, but the future possibilities surrounding InjectTab may prove otherwise. As someone who has given myself injections for more than a dozen years, this type of technology blows my mind in the best way. When my GI walked into my hospital room in July 2008 while I was battling an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine and he told me I had two options—Humira or Remicade, I was devastated. I didn’t want to give myself injections and I didn’t want to sit with an IV in my arm and feel sickly. It was a lot to process then and is still not always easy now. Hats off to companies like SmartTab innovating and changing the landscape for the future of IBD and beyond. As a patient, it means the world to me to see the tireless work going on behind the scenes that will change the future for those living with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other conditions.

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Interested in learning more about IBD innovations? Check out the virtual IBD Innovate: Product Development for Crohn’s and Colitis conference November 17-18. Register here.

Click here to learn more about Tech Crunch’s Top Picks for 2020.

Check out my podcast interview about living life powerfully with Crohn’s disease and the future of IBD treatment.