This article was sponsored by ImYoo. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.
Precision medicine is a common term we hear when it comes to treating IBD now and into the future. But have you heard about citizen science as it relates to IBD? Citizen science gives everyone a chance to play an active role in research. Whether that’s coming up with research ideas or taking part in the experiments themselves, citizen science makes it possible for you to have a direct impact. A company spun out of Caltech is taking citizen science to a whole new level. ImYoo is debugging the human immune system by using at-home blood collection kits and single RNA sequencing to discover insights about autoimmune diseases.
Tatyana Dobreva and her co-founder, David Brown, worked at NASA prior to switching gears from space to focus on biotech.
“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process and highlighted for us what was missing. Since the pandemic, people are paying more attention to their immune systems. Immunology is still as much a mystery as outer space, so that was the next frontier we wanted to get involved in. We feel that the best way to take on that challenge is by building a database across time, for every individual – that is what can make personalized medicine possible and that is why we’re so focused on making this research accessible.”
Since IBD presents uniquely in each person and changes over time, it’s a rollercoaster journey of highs to lows, flares to remission. With all the twists, turns, and complexities that ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s create for each of us in the patient community, following a roadmap can seem impossible.
“Precision medicine tries to apply scientific tools to take out some of this guesswork. A lot of those tools look at the genetic material you inherited from your parents. We’re adding another tool to that kit by looking at the expression of those genes. For IBD, we want to figure out which genes and cells are acting up during a flare,” said Tatyana.
By answering these key questions, clinicians have told Tatyana that it will help gastroenterologists make more informed decisions when it comes to treating and managing IBD and patients can feel more empowered every step of the way. While making the decision to start a biologic can be overwhelming for patients, precision medicine is a way to have powerful data to support the choice to move forward with that treatment plan.
Tracking the immune system over time
ImYoo’s focus is tracking a person’s immune system over time. Researchers do this by looking at RNA expression. Tatyana shared a fantastic analogy with me. She said that DNA is like the menu you get at a restaurant, RNA is your order, and proteins are your final meal.
“There are a lot of companies that look at your blueprint, or in this case your menu – all the possibilities. Our team at ImYoo looks at your cells’ orders over time. That way we can capture how the different immune cells in your blood are changing,” said Tatyana.
IBD flareups are of specific interest to both clinicians and patients. Even after living with Crohn’s disease for more than 17 years, the unpredictability of the disease is still one of my main struggles. The looming thoughts of a flare are always with you.
“There is not much literature on what happens in the immune system during a flare, and we think there are a lot of powerful biomarkers that could be discovered if IBD patients could track themselves during flares and when they feel “normal.”Our IBD study will ask IBD warriors to sample themselves both during and outside of flares,” said Tatyana.
ImYoo built a solid foundation for studying autoimmunity because researchers were able to build a database of “normal” immune systems.
“Being the first to do this for single-cell data means we can provide a helpful reference to enable more single-cell studies for the future. By having a large database of “healthy” immune systems, we can provide more context as to what having a flare means with respect to dysfunctional immune systems.”
How IBD Patients Can Participate
ImYoo’s IBD study was inspired by conversations researchers had across Reddit and in a Facebook group. Patients in the community offered invaluable insights about what to research.
Emily Harari works as a liaison between the scientific team at ImYoo and the patient community. She says if a person demonstrates interest in participating in the study, a screening process will take place to determine eligibility.
If you qualify, you are enrolled under an ethics-approved study protocol and sent a kit that includes a virtually painless capillary blood self-collection device called TAP II. The device allows you to participate in immune studies in the comfort of your home and send capillary blood samples directly to the ImYoo lab. The TAP II is placed on the upper arm and sticks with the help of a gentle adhesive, it barely penetrates the inner layer of your skin and feels like a suction cup.
“For the IBD study, we ask you to collect a few samples when you’re feeling well and a few samples when you’re flaring. The TAP II device is virtually painless and takes just a couple minutes to use. You’ll mail us the tube of your sample with the packaging we provide. After several weeks we’ll report updates from the lab and several weeks after that we’ll release our study’s findings to the community. Since the community is crowdsourcing the study for us, the least we can do is share what we discover. For example, we may find a new gene or an immune cell marker that helps your doctor better treat your flares,” said Emily.
The Power of Crowdsourcing
The best part about a crowdsourced study is that anyone can make a difference. By visiting the ImYoo crowdsourcing page and selecting “Participate in this Study!” you are making a powerful impact. The more people with IBD who join, the more attention we can attract for crowdfunding.
“If you’re eligible for the IBD study, we’ll reach out after we’ve hit our crowdfunding goal. To help us reach our goal, you can express an interest to participate or pitch in a donation to one of our Champions’ campaigns. There’s a network effect we’re going for, one person tapping into their community can open so many doors.”
If you’ve ever been told your labs or scopes look normal or there’s nothing more to do when you’re suffering through IBD, it’s simply not true. Everyone is on their own health journey and deserves a chance to take control of it.
“That’s why ImYoo is excited to put innovative science in peoples’ hands. This research isn’t possible without the IBD community, which is why we invite IBD Warriors to pitch in however they can – skip a coffee and donate $5, express interest to participate, or simply share to your network,” said Emily.
“Our goal is to empower the IBD community with more powerful tools. One of the biggest questions we hear from IBD folks is, “Am I in remission yet?” You might be feeling fine and think you’re good, meanwhile your immune system could be attacking your colon,” explained Tatyana. “We hope to help people track their immune systems when they are most vulnerable.”
By enabling the IBD community to crowdsource our own studies, the power is in our hands. ImYoo wants to explain their research findings every step of the way and keep people engaged, because it really is a partnership. From this IBD study, the ImYoo team wants to prove that the IBD community can make their own research happen. By studying flares, the hope is that sequencing the state of individual immune cells will uncover predictors and targets for more accessible precision medicine.
Connect with ImYoo, Follow and Participate in the Research
They call themselves “Propellers.” They’re a team of volunteers, made up of IBD patients and caregivers who created a non-profit called Propel a Cure for Crohn’s in 2016. They are laser focused on preventing and curing Crohn’s disease and, on the heels of their first research project funded at Stanford University in the world-renowned lab of Professor Mark Davis, they’re now determined to make a meaningful difference through their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s effort. During this month (September 2022), they’re aiming to raise $50,000 to help get their latest project off the ground and to provide a solid foundation to bring their global team together.
This is a grassroots effort fueled by patient and parent volunteers. Patients and caregivers have an opportunity right now to directly influence a brighter future without Crohn’s! This is a peer-to-peer fundraiser—it’s not just about the monetary donations, but also sharing the message with others far and wide. Not only are international researchers involved, there are people all over the globe participating. In addition to the English-language campaign, there are also Swedish and Portuguese online campaigns running as well.
The Patient/Caregiver Perspective
Ildiko Mehes recalls what it was like when her 9-year-old daughter received her lifechanging Crohn’s disease diagnosis in 2017.
“As a parent, a serious diagnosis like Crohn’s is a huge shock, and it’s absolutely devastating and heartbreaking. Even during periods of remission, we are always on high alert and waiting for the other shoe to drop. At diagnosis, my whole world stopped, literally and figuratively. As irrational as it sounds, as a parent, you wish the rest of the world stopped with you to help you address the crisis. You wish that all of modern medicine rolled up their sleeves and urgently worked together to precisely diagnose the problem and bring her back to long-term health.”
As a caregiver, Ildiko has a unique sense of urgency and determination. She feels we need and can do better for IBD patients.
“When an otherwise healthy child, with no prior medical history, suddenly presents with IBD symptoms during a routine winter virus, you ask yourself “what caused this switch to be flipped?” Not having any answers to the underlying mechanism of disease onset or perpetuation, having a trial-and-error approach to disease management, and being forced to consider serious immunosuppressive medications with modest clinical trial benefits feels unacceptable as a parent. This is what drives me.”
As a pharmaceutical executive with more than 20 years of experience, Ildiko uses that unique skill set to go after complex and difficult goals with Propel a Cure and feels a deep sense of obligation to help our community.
“While there is excellent research ongoing in IBD, it happens in silos. It lacks global coordination and a plan. We don’t yet understand many basic things about Crohn’s. We are all just hoping for a “eureka moment” that hasn’t come over the last 100 years. We are continuously enticed with headlines of a “promising” new pathway or new drug candidate, usually in mice. And then that great idea sits there, with no progress made, a decade or more later. I know we can do better,” she said.
Natalie Muccioli Emery was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2011 and she’s also a Propel a Cure Board member. She started dealing with abdominal issues 26 years ago. Being a veteran patient has provided her with perspective about how far treating and managing IBD has come and how far we still have to go.
“Propel a Cure was the first organization whose mission resonated with me. I appreciate their mission to cure Crohn’s Disease, but I even more appreciate the fact that they have laid out a plan as to what the areas of knowns and remaining unknowns are in their Roadmap to a Cure for Crohn’s project. Complex issues like Crohn’s Disease will take a collaborative and systematic approach to address, and this cause has captured that,” said Natalie.
Not only is Natalie an IBD mom, she’s also an IBD aunt!
“I believe that as an adult with IBD, the way I embody the role of a “Crohn’s Warrior” is not for myself it is for the next generation. I have “been there and done all that” with Crohn’s. But just because I did it with Crohn’s doesn’t mean the next generation should have to. I grow increasingly concerned when I see the rising rates of IBDs like Crohn’s in younger people. I believe the rising rates of Crohn’s should create a sense of urgency and a desire for a better future.”
Putting the puzzle pieces together
The Roadmap to a Cure is an ambitious project but one that is needed to drive real progress toward cures and prevention of IBDs, not just talk about “cures” in some very distant future. Ildiko says the brilliant clinicians and scientists she has gotten to know all tell her that getting to a cure will take a grassroots effort, global collaboration, and involvement of patients and caregivers.
“We at Propel a Cure are deeply committed to doing exactly that. The first step in our project is to systematize what we already know about Crohn’s today. We know a great deal, thanks to research. But when we are talking about complex fields like genetics, epigenetics, immunology, microbiology, epidemiology, multi-omics platforms and artificial intelligence, etc. there is no way any one person or group can know everything. We need a large global group of dedicated and brilliant experts to put all the puzzle pieces we already have on one table so we can begin to then put the pieces together,” she explained.
Grabbing the attention of medical professionals and researchers
Propel a Cure grabbed the attention of Dr. Bram Verstockt, MD, PhD, Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospitals Leuven, on social media.
“I truly like the concept of joined forces across various stakeholders, including patients and caregivers. As clinicians and scientists, we can have ideas about how to move forward based on experiences and interactions with patients on a daily basis. However, the next step really is to involve patients actively in many of these projects, as is currently the case with Propel a Cure,” said Dr. Verstockt.
The “Roadmap to a Cure” aims to bring together expertise across many different fields and niches in IBD.
“Over the past decades, a lot of scientific evidence has been generated in multiple domains of Crohn’s disease, so now it’s time to bring all that evidence together and truly connect the dots. Only by doing so, one might unravel knowns and unknowns and highlight where the remaining key gaps are, and we can define the priorities and strategies of how to fill these gaps to significantly advance the field, to improve the lives of patients with Crohn’s disease,” said Dr. Verstockt.
Where the roadmap can take us
After the initial step of putting together the state of the art, the next step is identifying gaps in our knowledge: what puzzle pieces do we still need? The third step is to develop the plan, or the Research Roadmap, to get from what we know today to developing cures and prevention strategies.
“We truly believe in a future where we can prevent and cure Crohn’s and eliminate so much patient and family suffering,” said Ildiko.
The reason this requires a grassroots effort and all of us patients and caregivers to fund it, is that otherwise the current system largely doesn’t provide incentives for new ideas or cures or global collaborative efforts of this magnitude. A recent paper discusses how the same ideas have been funded for decades, with limited progress and that we urgently need new directions.
Ildiko believes the current research incentive model is broken. “If we want true progress and cures for Crohn’s and other IBDs, we need a new collaborative model among IBD foundations/nonprofits, patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and others. I believe this can become a model for other chronic and immune-mediated diseases.”
Click here to watch a video where Ildiko explains the Roadmap to a Cure project further.
Hopes for the future
“I would really like to see more key opinion leaders be brave about acknowledging the risks and limitations of current therapies, avoid putting lipstick on a pig when discussing some newer drug candidates in trials with lackluster results and the same mechanisms, dispense with biased headlines like “safe and effective” when the data is much more nuanced or unclear, and openness to “outside-the-box” ideas, like microbiome manipulation, including via diet, infectious triggers like Epstein-Barr virus in Multiple Sclerosis, vagus nerve stimulation, Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT), hyperbaric oxygen, etc. and also adopt routine monitoring via intestinal ultrasound for many patients,” said Ildiko.
As of now (September 12, 2022)—more than $26,609 has been raised!
“I have been overwhelmed by the response so far, as has the entire Propel team. People are really connecting with our mission. We are getting donations from so many states and countries! We have received more messages of profound thanks and hope than I can recount. This fuels us so much,” said Ildiko.
Natalie feels a wide range of emotions each time she sees a donation come in or the campaign shared across social media.
“I go from feeling hopeful, to introspective, to sad. I truly wish we did not have to do this campaign and that in 2022 we knew what the underlying cause(s) of Crohn’s are, and that safe, effective, reliable treatments were available for all Crohn’s patients. But here we are. Crohn’s is still very much part of the lives of patients and caregivers, and we need to take action to change that. I am so grateful for the outpouring of support we have received so far, but there is more work to be done!”
Propel a Cure has virtually no overhead fees or salaries, so every single dollar donated to Roadmap for a Cure goes to research.
“We are all volunteers who work out of our homes. The donations will be put towards collaborative research teams worldwide. Each team will lead a contributing area to the development of Crohn’s Disease (environment, microbiome, immune system etc.) and highlight where the gaps in knowledge remain,” said Natalie.
“The ultimate dream obviously would be to cure and if not, to significantly improve the quality of life for millions of patients worldwide,” said Dr. Verstockt.
Click here to donate to this incredible cause or to join their team.
This blog was sponsored by Mahana Therapeutics. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.
Did you know that two thirds of people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also meet the criteria for a functional GI disorder? Dr. Aline Charabaty, Dr. John Damianos, and Dr. Katie Dunleavy recently presented a paper at the 2022 Guild Conference addressing the substantial overlap between Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis and the gut-brain interaction. You may wonder what constitutes a functional GI disorder, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common.
“What we know is that up to 30-40% of patients with IBD in remission (absence of gut inflammation) continue to have GI symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and fecal urgency, due to disorders of gut-brain interaction (DGBIs, also known as functional gastrointestinal disorders),” explained Dr. Aline Charabaty, director of the IBD Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than 17 years ago, I’ve been told by multiple gastroenterologists that I have IBS as well. At one point I was told, “you have a touch of IBS” …whatever that’s supposed to mean. I know I am not alone in believing I have both IBD and IBS, especially since having 18 inches of my small intestine removed for bowel resection surgery in 2015.
Dr. Charabaty says this is the case for many patients because of the following:
Structural damage to the gut caused by IBD. Crohn’s disease can lead to small bowel stricture, which can cause cramps and constipation (by blocking or slowing down the stool flow); Long standing UC can create a “lead pipe colon” (where the colon loses its normal twists and turns that typically slow the stool flow down and become like a straight tube which makes the stool “fall” straight down), which can cause diarrhea and urgency. Resection of part of the small bowel and colon decreases the surface of the bowel that can absorb the water and solidify stools, which leads to loose stool. Finally change in bowel anatomy from stricture or resection, abdominal adhesions from prior inflammation, abscess, or surgery, can lead to small bowel bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) which can cause bloating, pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
People living with IBD can become intolerant to certain foods or modify their diet. This can lead to change in gut flora that affect gut functioning and lead to GI symptoms.
Recurrent flares or previous severe inflammation can lead to change in the gut sensation. Visceral hypersensitivity, gut motility, gut microbiome, intestinal permeability, and how someone perceives and tolerates all the sensations (pain, discomfort) that come from the gut.
IBD affects people’s emotional and mental health and is associated with a higher incidence of depression and anxiety. We know that depression and anxiety can affect the gut functioning and lead to IBS symptoms.
“All these changes are similar to what we see in people living with IBS and can cause IBS and IBS symptoms in people living with IBD. Sometimes the way I explain it to patients with IBD, is that IBS is like the PTSD of the gut. The gut has been inflamed, traumatized, manipulated, changed from prior flare and now it can’t go back to functioning properly, even if it’s healed and it looks normal,” said Dr. Charabaty.
This is where Mahana IBS comes in. The main mission? To empower people with chronic conditions to lead fuller lives through digital therapeutics. That’s why they debuted their new prescription digital therapeutic app, Mahana IBS, in the fall of 2021. Their wish is to destigmatize IBS and bring hope and meaningful solutions to patients like you and me.
Steven Basta is the CEO of Mahana Therapeutics. He says the app is safe, FDA-cleared, and has been clinically proven in the world’s largest trial of its kind to reduce IBS symptom severity.
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has long been recommended in clinical guidelines as a safe and effective treatment for IBS. Access to traditional CBT with a therapist has been a huge challenge due to the limited number of IBS-trained therapists (less than 300 in the US). Now patients can access CBT and learn the skills it provides to help a patient manage their disease by using Mahana IBS on their smartphone, with great results: 3 out of 4 patients find relief and results for most patients are lasting. Mahana users can complete the program in 90 days or less at their own pace with daily lessons on their phone to create a healthy brain-gut connection and live life more fully.”
Both IBD and IBS negatively impact our quality of life. Our mental health, our psychosocial health, and our financial health (increased health care utilization, missing days of work, medications to treat symptoms).
“Beyond treating the inflammation of IBD, and preventing IBD-associated complications, it is important to recognize and treat IBS when it is present, so people can recover and optimize their quality of life. CBT is an effective therapy for IBS and reduces or eliminates symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating,” said Dr. Charabaty.
Unfortunately, access to a therapist who can provide gut-directed CBT can be limited: lack of therapists trained in CBT in someone’s geographical area, limited time availability (many therapists are not taking new patients, or have long waits to see someone; or from an IBD patients’ standpoint—lack of “extra” health care time available, when we often juggle many health appointments), deal with lack of insurance coverage, additional costs related to taking time off work and the expenses related to travel and participate in CBT sessions. Which makes the app even more useful and beneficial for the patient community.
Bringing up digital therapy to your GI provider
Digital therapy is new, and Mahana Therapeutics is working hard to spread awareness in the clinical and patient community to ensure everyone who could benefit, has access, and knows about Mahana IBS.
“It’s important for patients living with IBD to ask their doctor whether Mahana IBS is suitable for them and discuss how it can work with their treatment plan,” said Steve.
As a gastroenterologist who specializes in IBD, Dr. Charabaty says, “Having an FDA-cleared prescription app that provides CBT right at the patient’s fingertips is pure gold! Easy and effective access to CBT at a time that is convenient for the patient, in the privacy of their home, without the added extra time and cost burden of a visit to a clinician. I believe that with this technology/app, which removes many barriers to accessing therapy for IBS, that many more people living with IBS (whether they have IBD or not) will benefit from what CBT has to offer and will be able to improve their symptoms and regain their quality of life.”
Patients who are in IBD remission experiencing IBS Symptoms may want to ask:
“If my IBD is in remission and my symptoms are IBS related, could a digital therapy treatment such as Mahana IBS gut-directed CBT be suitable for me?”
GIs who want to understand more about the clinical evidence and indications for use for Mahana IBS can head this website to check out the medical provider welcome pack which contains all the clinical information they need to get started and to prescribe Mahana IBS.
While the app is a prescription, patients can also download the app on their own and show their gastroenterologist in clinic. But to gain access to the full program, patients need to get a prescription to unlock the benefits.
How the app is tailored to each patient
People experience IBS differently which is why Mahana IBS provides a personalized approach, regardless of type of IBS. In the early sessions of the app, patients create an IBS symptoms profile, take an IBS Symptom Severity Score assessment, and create their personalized model.
“This means people get to identify and capture their own symptoms and associated thoughts, behaviors and actions that arise as a result of these. As patients progress through the app and unlock tools and content, exercises are provided that are tailored to people’s individual IBS symptoms. Progress is recorded through the IBS Symptoms Severity Score at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of the program to measure results,” explained Steven.
Reframing thought process to reduce IBS symptoms
We can all relate to how feeling anxious can leave our ‘stomach in knots’ but in IBS there is a disorder of the brain-gut communication which causes and perpetuates symptoms. For example, our guts can release hormones that change our mood, and the brain in turn sends a signal to our guts to change our bowel functions which then sends more signals to the brain.
“Patients may develop habits or use ‘coping’ techniques that perpetuate the vicious cycle of brain-gut miscommunication without knowing it. The Mahana IBS app uses a gut-directed CBT program that was researched and developed over several decades. It is designed so you can understand your personalized patterns and then learn skills to help support a healthier brain-gut interaction. The program delivers a combination of education and exercises so that patients identify and reframe thoughts, feelings, and actions related to IBS. Through the Mahana IBS program, patients can gain tools and habits for managing symptoms long-term,” said Steven.
Along with learning to reframe our thoughts, the app also features visceral relaxation exercises like diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, which can reduce visceral pain and improve GI function. Mahana IBS has easy to follow animations to help patients learn and practice these techniques.
While Mahana IBS is a treatment program designed to be completed in 90 days or less with lasting results, Steve tells me some patients may experience relief from their functional GI disorder within a matter of weeks.
“Patients go at their own pace, so they may complete the program more quickly. Once the 90 days have elapsed, patients can still access their personal data (for example goal setting, IBS-SSS score or their personal IBS Model). Patients can return to the app at any time to find support in any of the lessons, tools, and exercises they have completed.”
Accessing Mahana IBS
Mahana is committed to affordable access. Some patients may be reimbursed by insurance. For those patients who are not covered by insurance, there is a subsidized program to ensure patients will pay no more than $90 out of pocket for prescription cost. That’s less than a single session with a therapist ($120/session) for the complete 10-session program.
Steven says it’s incredibly rewarding and a huge privilege to lead the Mahana team transforming access to treatments like this through digital therapy.
“As CEO of Mahana Therapeutics I am inspired by so many amazing patients with IBS. One patient who had struggled for years with IBS symptoms that made her feel truly hopeless expressed that Mahana IBS changed her life. With the lessons and skills she learned, she no longer avoids the food she loves, and the way she thinks about IBS has altered so completely, it no longer limits her life. Our team’s mission is to make this story a reality for millions of IBS patients.”
Mahana IBS is available for download directly from the Apple App store and Google Play store—and the first session is free to try! To unlock all the specific features and benefits, you’ll want to get a prescription from your GI. Once you’ve been prescribed the app by your doctor, you will get a message from Blink Pharmacy with instructions to get started.
This blog article is sponsored by Portal Instruments. All opinions and experiences shared are my own.
I’ll always remember how I felt the moment I was told I needed to go on a biologic drug to try and manage and control my Crohn’s disease. It was Fourth of July weekend 2008. My gastroenterologist walked into my hospital room and told me it was time to “break out the big guns,” meaning starting to get medication through an infusion or through a self-injection. I was a morning news anchor at the time in Wisconsin, three years into my patient journey. I knew without a doubt, for privacy reasons, and keeping my chronic health issue under the radar, that doing an injection in the comfort of my apartment was the best choice. As I watched the fireworks reflect off the hospital room window with my mom, tears flowed down my face. I didn’t know how on God’s green Earth I was ever going to be able to give myself an injection for the rest of my life.
I was never a huge fan of needles prior to my diagnosis. Once you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease, needles unfortunately are all part of it. While we may get desensitized, patients would give anything to be able to treat their disease without needles. When I started on my biologic, my mom and I went to my gastroenterologist office and a nurse told me I needed to do four, painful injections in my thighs because at the time I didn’t have enough fat on my stomach. I was shaking like a leaf. I had no idea what to expect, I was about to inflict pain on myself, the injector felt so foreign in my sweaty palms, and I was scared about not only how much it was going to hurt, but also the long-term side effects the medication could cause to my body.
I did the first injection and it felt like liquid fire burning through my skin. I couldn’t believe I had to sit there and do three more, back…to back…to back. The experience was traumatizing. When I finally did all four, my mom and I walked into the hallway and I embraced her, crying because of my reality, and knowing that in two weeks I would need to inject two more needles into my thighs for the final loading dose. Since July 2008, I’ve done a self-injection every other Monday and for a short time weekly, while I was flaring. That’s more than 2,600 shots.
Dreading “shot day”
The first few years I would absolutely dread my “shot day” and deal with the looming dread each week. Early on I would get emotional during the process and feel bad for myself. I was only 25 years old. It made me feel like I was a sickly person. My peers couldn’t relate. It was isolating and overwhelming. Every time I open my fridge, the box of injections is staring back at me as a constant reminder of what’s to come.
Doing my injections as an IBD mom
Fast forward to present day, I’m now a 38-year-old mom of three. Luckily, the formula for the medication was changed in 2018, making the drug virtually “pain-free”, but there are times I still feel the needle. Even though I have my medication process down to a science, I still wish I didn’t have to do it and I usually wait until Monday nights to do it. The timing is moreso out of habit, because when I was a morning news anchor there was no way I was going to deal with an injection at 2 a.m. I started a tradition of doing my injection while watching the Bachelor/Bachelorette, and that’s carried over now that I have three young children, often waiting until after their bedtimes. Each time after I’m done with my shot, I text my mom to let her know how it went. She’s a nurse and has been my greatest support with my IBD since the day I was diagnosed.
Sometimes my 5-year-old and 3-year-old watch me do my injection and each time they are intrigued. I’m sure my 11-month-old will be the same once he starts to gain an understanding of what I’m doing. It makes me sad that they often witness me doing my injection, but they are also my greatest motivation to be strong and smile through it. Watching me doing injections has made my kids incredibly brave at the pediatrician when it’s time for them to get their immunizations. Because I have little ones, I have to be mindful of disposing of my medication properly and keeping the Sharps disposal container out of harm’s way. We keep Sharps Containers up high in a cubby hole in our laundry room and I dispose of the injector pen immediately.
As an IBD mom, my greatest fear is passing along my Crohn’s to my children. While the risk is low, it’s there. I hope and pray my children won’t ever need to receive a biologic medication whether it’s through self-injection or infusion. For me, there’s no end in sight, I’m expected to be on my medication (if it remains therapeutic) for the rest of my life. Thinking of my babies having to deal with needles and being forced to inflict pain on them would be difficult for me and only add to the guilt.
The future holds so much promise when it comes to drug delivery without a needle. My hope is that in the years to come, other people won’t have to succumb to the same anxiety, pain, and worry I’ve had to deal with for more than a decade.
Innovation and changes in healthcare are propelled by patients and caregivers speaking up about improvements that can change the way IBD is treated and managed. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from pediatric gastroenterologists Dr. Michael Dolinger, MD, MBA, Advanced Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Fellow, Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Dr. Mallory Chavannes, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles about the benefits of Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS) becoming a part of routine care, regardless of age.
The goal of IUS is to utilize a non-invasive method to monitor disease activity over time and it’s considered to be more precise than endoscopy in identifying both disease location and characterizing the severity of IBD. The IBD community—both patients and caregivers—can help fuel the adoption of IUS and gain access to receiving more information about their disease activity than ever before.
What is Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS)?
Intestinal Ultrasound (IUS) is an abdominal ultrasound performed during a routine clinic visit without preparation, fasting, or contrast to assess both the colon and the small intestine (terminal ileum most frequently) for the presence of disease activity. Probes are placed over the abdomen and the provider looks at images of the small and large bowel.
“The beauty is that, unlike procedures and other image modalities available to assess disease activity of inflammatory bowel disease, IUS can be performed without any preparation or fasting,” said Dr. Chavannes. “In the setting of active disease, patients can have a thickened appearance of the wall of the bowel (termed increased bowel wall thickness) in both the small intestine and the colon, which can be detected via ultrasound.”
In addition, by using color Doppler, a feature that assesses the velocity of blood flow within and around the bowel wall, gastroenterologists can demonstrate inflammatory activity in the bowel wall. IUS can also detect IBD complications, such as fistulas, abscesses, or strictures (narrowing) of the bowel.
“Our expectation is that, with effective therapies, the aforementioned features of disease activity should improve or even disappear over subsequent clinic visits. If they do not, we now have an objective tool available in the clinic that can assist clinical decisions, such as ordering further investigations or even optimizing or changing therapy. Improvement of bowel wall thickening or decrease in color Doppler signaling is a reassuring sign that treatment is working. Lack of improvement signifies that optimization or changes in therapy should be considered,” explained Dr. Chavannes.
“Intestinal ultrasound is precise, we monitor bowel wall thickness down to the 0.1 mm. We are now able to make informed decisions with patients together, assessing their disease objectively in real-time so we can be aligned with our treatment goals. This reduces misunderstanding and may lead to better treatment adherence and improved outcomes,” said Dr. Dolinger.
Why the delay in the United States?
While IUS isn’t the standard of care across the world, it is used in several Canadian IBD centers and in Europe (Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, and Australia to name a few). However, there are still many areas of Canada and countries in Europe where this is not used as part of routine IBD care.
“There have been several barriers to adoption in the USA, the biggest of which are reimbursement and the lack of training/expertise. However, that is changing, as there is a tremendous amount of interest from most major academic centers,” said Dr. Dolinger. “Through the International Bowel Ultrasound Group (IBUS) there is now a formal training, while intensive, that can be completed by anyone willing in the USA, which did not exist 5 years ago.”
IUS fits perfectly in the treat-to-target algorithm by adopting a monitoring strategy that helps to prevent flares and bowel damage.
“There is no other test for patients to see their disease dynamically with a gastroenterologist in real-time, which enhances shared understanding and informs decision making like never before. All of this will help break the barrier in the USA and around the rest of the world,” said. Dr. Dolinger.
authors surveyed nearly 350 physicians, of which 40% were pediatric gastroenterologists. Although a minority of gastroenterologists were using ultrasound to assess and monitor IBD (either bedside or within the radiology department), over three-quarters expressed interest in using it more.
“The main limitation identified or perceived by gastroenterologists who responded to this survey was a concern for inter-observer variability, a lack of familiarity with ultrasound indications and techniques, and a lack of interest and access to pursuing additional specialized training. In addition, the survey identified a common message that I have received previously from some radiologists; that other modalities are more precise or effective in assessing IBD. All these reasons can hinder interest and implementation,” said Dr. Chavannes.
However, considering the multi-center effort in disseminating training, knowledge, and engagement that has been ongoing in the USA in recent years, Dr. Chavannes is hopeful that IUS will rapidly become the standard of care nationwide.
How Children’s Hospital in LA and Mount Sinai in New York Use the Technology
The Henry and Elaine Kaufman Intestinal Ultrasound Program at Mount Sinai is one of the first in the country to employ the training of gastroenterologists and regular use of intestinal ultrasound for both children and adults routinely in the IBD center for non-invasive disease activity monitoring.
“This would not be possible without the leadership of Dr. Marla Dubinsky, who has worked painstakingly hard to bring this to patients at Mount Sinai, overcoming every barrier to lead the way in the USA. We would like patients everywhere in the USA to be able to have tight control non-invasive monitoring with intestinal ultrasound and in turn, are working with International Bowel Ultrasound Group (IBUS) to host the first hands-on training in the USA at Mount Sinai in the fall. We have faculty from around the country signed up to learn and this will hopefully begin to fuel further adoption,” said Dr. Dolinger.
Intestinal Ultrasound was introduced at Children’s Hospital in LA in the summer of 2020. This was incredibly helpful during the pandemic when access to endoscopy time was difficult, considering cancellations due to active COVID infection and decreased daily procedures to allow for intensive cleaning protocols.
“We integrated using IUS for all patients coming to the pediatric IBD clinic. We have seen an immediate benefit in how we approach patient care and how timely clinical decisions can be made right at the time of the clinical encounter. One example is for patients presenting for a second opinion; these patients usually present with ongoing symptoms of varying degrees, yet incomplete or dated documentation of endoscopy, fecal calprotectin (a stool test helpful in indicating inflammation), and blood work,” said Dr. Chavannes.
During the visit, IUS gives an opportunity to understand the source of the symptoms experienced by patients and the degree of ongoing inflammation. Then, clinical decisions can be made that day, eliminating the need for additional testing. Dr. Chavannes says IUS even helps ease the discussions she has with parents and families.
“Many parents are stunned by the images they see and the changes over time. At the same time, they also notice when there is little difference from one appointment to the next, understanding the reason we are making the changes to the management plan that follows,” said Dr. Chavannes. “IUS has been invaluable for children under 6 years of age. This vulnerable population needs frequent objective reassessments, which is not possible otherwise. Using MR-Enterography would require general anesthesia, and access can be difficult. Similarly, for endoscopy, the prep can be poorly tolerated, and it also requires general anesthesia. IUS is non-invasive, painless, very well tolerated in young children, and available in real-time. Therefore, both parents and children are quite satisfied with their experience with IUS.”
Targeting treatment through IUS
Monitoring symptoms alone is not effective in reaching deep healing of disease in IBD, as many patients feel well despite having ongoing intestinal inflammation. IUS evaluates the inflammation that occurs within the thickness of the bowel wall (transmural inflammation).
“We often find that ultrasound is the only tool that shows continued inflammation when patients are in remission and labs have normalized. Optimizing therapies based on persistent inflammation seen on ultrasound may prevent us from falling into the trap of thinking our medications are working when our patients feel better and thus lead to better outcomes by not missing persistent inflammation that we have continued to miss with traditional monitoring strategies,” said Dr. Dolinger.
Although there are no fully established algorithms for the frequency of monitoring IBD using IUS, the best approach appears to have a baseline IUS at the time of IBD diagnosis or in the context of active symptoms or elevated inflammation markers on blood work (a flare).
“Then, the clinician can understand the features to follow over time. A repeat IUS can be performed at the end of induction treatment to assess how effective the management is. It would represent 6-8 weeks after the treatment was started. Provided that there is a marked improvement, the subsequent evaluations with IUS can be done every 3-6 months unless there are new concerns, with the closer timeline early in the disease course,” explained Dr. Chavannes.
In pediatric patients, this routine ends up matching most routine clinic visits. Therefore, as IUS becomes standard practice, and depending on how a patient is doing, their symptoms, and last assessed disease activity, patients can expect IUS as often as with each clinic visit. This modality would complement blood work and calprotectin stool tests in informing about disease activity and for complications of disease or flares.
What the future holds
Since a few IBD centers in the United States have already implemented regular IUS in their practice and have been disseminating knowledge about this technique, there is growing interest from pediatric providers to join the movement as well.
“Considering the challenges pediatric providers face in access to complementary imaging, operating room time, anesthesia exposure to endoscopy, and even the tolerance drinking contrast for radiology studies, IUS offers a fantastic way to assess disease activity in the pediatric IBD population. I am excited about the number of pediatric centers that have reached out about getting expertise in this field. The key is to promote buy-in from leaders in each institution to get the time and resources required for training and implementation,” said Dr. Chavannes.
Advice for patients and caregivers
It doesn’t hurt to bring up IUS at your next clinic appointment to gauge where your care team stands and if anything is in the works.
“If your provider is unaware of IUS and its benefit, it would be great to talk to them about the International Bowel Ultrasound Group. The curriculum for getting training involves three modules: an introductory module, a 4-week hands-on training at an expert center, and a concluding module and examination part of the European Crohn’s Colitis Congress,” said Dr. Chavannes.
She went on to say that hearing this request from patients may motivate administrators to provide the necessary time clinicians who are interested in getting expertise to implement the tool at their center would need.
Dr. Dolinger believes most major academic IBD centers in the United States will rely on IUS in the next 3-5 years.
“I would like to remind patients to be patient with their providers. Ensuring correct training and standardization is essential for adoption in the USA and this takes time and rigor to be done right and change the monitoring algorithm which has not been done in many years,” said Dr. Dolinger. “I began training in 2019 and it wasn’t until the second half of 2021 that we began using it very routinely for decision making, taking 2 years to become an expert. So, this will happen, but it will take some time.”
Patients and parents are big fans
The safety and efficacy of IUS can’t be matched. It’s also a big-time saver for everyone involved. A bedside ultrasound can be performed in a range of 20 minutes for the first thorough assessment, while an even more focused exam in a known patient can take less than 10 minutes.
“Both parents and children have been quite satisfied after their experience, as children can go back to school after the clinic despite undergoing this examination. Furthermore, the time saved in skipping additional appointments with the radiology department or procedures can be invaluable,” said Dr. Chavannes.
For parents, the imaging provides reassurance when there are improvements or when there are non-specific symptoms, yet the IUS is normal. IUS also bring validation when there are abnormal findings and helps to provide an explanation for why children are feeling a certain way.
“Children appreciate that it does not hurt and takes little time in addition to their clinic visits. In addition, they may not require additional appointments in radiology or endoscopy. Parents who had an opportunity of experiencing an ultrasound often request it afterward as part of their clinic visits. These families are more engaged and participate in shared decision-making. I am pleased and impressed at the engagement that actually “seeing” the disease together brings from families,” said Dr. Chavannes.
While the push is for IUS to be available to all IBD patients, both children and adults, it’s specifically beneficial for the management of pediatrics as it provides the unique opportunity to prevent bowel damage for a person’s entire life and reduce the need for invasive procedures, anesthesia, and sedation. IUS has the potential to alter scoping schedules in the future. While it will not replace the need for colon cancer screening or the assessment of mucosal and histologic healing, IUS can reduce the need for further follow-up scopes once those targets are achieved in between the need for cancer screening.
This blog post is sponsored by Wave Health. Thoughts and information shared are my own.
What started as an app designed for cancer patients in 2019, now spans more than 250 chronic health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease. Wave Health is a free, easy-to-use, comprehensive tool that empowers patients to use their daily health data in practical and effective ways, while enabling those in our community to be more involved in their care and treatment decisions. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s a look at the story behind how Wave Health came to be what it is today and how the app can be a transformative tool in how you take on your IBD.
Hear what Claudia Zhao, the Marketing and User Engagement lead at Wave, has to say about the inspiration behind their mission.
“Wave Health App was inspired by a personal patient experience. In 2013, one of Wave’s founding partners was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During his treatment, Ric’s partner, Matt (now the CEO of Wave Health) began to record extensive data by hand — things like his diet, hydration, exercise, mental engagement — anything that might impact the side effects Ric faced during his chemo and drug therapy. With this information, they were able to provide their doctor with real-time, individualized information, and identify relationships between what Ric was doing and the side effects he was experiencing. Protocols were shifted and Ric began to feel better,” said Claudia.
Matt transformed his data analytics system into chemoWave, an app for cancer patients like Ric. Soon, they realized that anyone with a chronic illness would benefit from a health management and insights tool like chemoWave, and they created Wave Health App.
“Wave’s mission is simple: to help every patient take control of their own journey. Wave serves to empower patients to use their everyday data in ways that allow them to be better partners with their care team and ultimately improve their at-home and treatment decisions.”
What sets Wave apart from other IBD-related apps
Most IBD-related apps focus on tracking symptoms and a few other activities such as meals, bowel movements, and medications. Wave Health is different in that it serves as an all-in-one health diary.
“In addition to the more obvious activities to track in IBD management, Wave also lets you track vitals, sleep, menstruation, and even mindfulness activities like meditation and breathing. Wave then gives you personal insights, not only about your symptoms, but also about what’s impacting your moods and wellbeing. Wave helps you manage your IBD-related symptoms, but it also acts as your overall health companion.”
Having a companion to help guide the way you manage and treat your IBD can help ease the isolating nature of our disease. Often life gets busy, and we forget how much our Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis takes a toll on our day-to-day activities. It’s easy to generalize or downplay the struggle when it comes time to share how you’re feeling to your care team. Wave takes that guesswork out of picture and is a win-win for everyone involved.
A systemic review out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center recently found the app to be the highest rated symptom and PRO tracker for cancer patients.
“This speaks to the fact that Wave is easy-to-use, while also providing real, tangible benefits to the patient journey. In addition to being rated the highest overall PRO tracking app, Wave also received the highest individual scores for both engagement and aesthetics, two very important pillars for any type of user experience. Since the review in 2020, Wave has also done a complete UI/UX redesign. With a more intuitive interface and new features that make health tracking even easier, the experience of using Wave is only getting better,” explained Claudia.
How Wave expanded beyond the cancer community
Beginning exclusively as a cancer app, Wave was expanded to serve all chronic illnesses because of the underlying challenges that patients face regardless of their specific health issue.
“The nature of most treatments is that they are standardized — protocols shift only after periods of trial and error. Wave identifies relationships effectively and quickly, so that treatments can be tweaked, and side effects can be alleviated or avoided more promptly.”
Another key focus of Wave is on filling the gap between doctor’s visits. Most of the patient experience occurs at home, not in the doctor office, and currently there is no sufficient system or way for patients to easily report their symptoms and other outcomes during these critical periods.
“Wave helps patients fill in their care team, whether it’s about how their symptoms have been improving or how many days they’ve missed their medications. With a comprehensive record of patients’ daily and treatment activities, doctors have a more complete picture of the patient and their journey and are enabled to make more-informed decisions from there.”
Wave can help anyone
You also don’t have to be “chronically ill” to use Wave and see its benefits. Tracking and getting Wave’s A.I. insights can help anyone improve how they feel. Wave is a health management tool for anyone looking to take control.
“The app empowers patients to take control of their own journey. Just by harnessing their own daily health data, they can get powerful information into what helps them feel better or worse and then adjust their at-home activities to optimize their wellbeing. Second, Wave helps patients communicated better with their doctors on what they’re experiencing between visits. Patients can share/email their logged data directly through the app, or they can receive easily shareable Wave Pro PDF reports,” said Claudia.
How Wave Pro Works and a 6-month FREE discount code
The reports summarize a patient’s important health data and insights from the week, allowing them to see both short-term and long-term trends and changes. Users can download these reports and bring them into their doctor’s visits. Wave Pro is available through a monthly ($10.99) or annual ($54.99) subscription, with a free 30-day trial at sign-up.
Enter the code LIGHTS right away at sign-up and receive 6 months of FREE Wave Pro reports.