I recently posted this on Facebook as a “layperson’s” answer to someone with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) who asked if Anti-TNF drugs are basically analogous to chemotherapy and people seemed to respond extremely favorably to it as they indicated it provided them with a better understanding of this common but fairly complex issue. Therefore, I thought I’d post it on my Blog to document my explanation for anyone in the future who seeks similar information.
While I am your ordinary 30-year Severe Crohn’s Disease patient who has been on all currently available medicinal therapies at one time or another (with the exception of “Entyvio”), I’ve also helped provide the “patient perspective” to various IBD-related scientific endeavors and that has helped me better understand how these biologic agents work to counteract the abnormally overactive immune systems in people with IBD. I AM NOT A DOCTOR nor do I profess to be well-schooled in the complex biological mechanisms which seem to play a significant role in the development and progression of IBD, but I seem to have a basic and relatively simplistic understanding of this issue so that’s why I am sharing these thoughts.
But 1st – Biologics and IBD Doctors who have NO TREATMENT PLANS
Before sharing the aforementioned explanation, I must share a growing concern I have regarding Biologics which is focused at certain gastroenterologists who have no defined “treatment plan” and instead tell their appropriate IBD patients: “It is time to resort to the Biologics to better manage or control your Crohn’s Disease [or Ulcerative Colitis] to stave off surgery. Which one do YOU want to go on?”
In my humble opinion, providing the IBD patient with this “choice” of Biologic seems ludicrous since the main three (3) brand name Biologics, namely, Remicade, Humira and Cimzia, are literally different drugs; Infliximab, Adalimumab and Certolizumab pegol, respectively. It is true the underlying rationale for the way in which these Biologics treat IBD is the same but they are administered differently, in different dosages and there are medical research studies with conclusions all over the place about whether one should be used before another or whether one is more efficacious in Crohn’s Disease rather than in Ulcerative Colitis or whether one is more effective in treating fistulas or abscesses or even about which one shows greater efficacy in treating IBD which occurs in different parts and levels of the diseased/inflamed gastrointestinal tract.
Biologics seem to affect many IBD patients differently
I know from personal experience how I experienced an anaphylactic reaction to Remicade after a few doses yet I know IBD patients who’ve been on Remicade since approximately 1998 without incident. I also know I developed severe and disabling irreversible respiratory side effects after graduating to Humira whereas there are many other patients who never experience such symptoms or side effects. Lastly, some IBD patients can be allergic to one Biologic but not to another one. All of this information clearly demonstrates the possible different and seemingly “personalized” effects and efficacies of each Biologic on different IBD patients.
Therefore, it seems incumbent upon DOCTORS to make the choice of Biologic in treating severe or progressive IBD cases since it is they who have witnessed how each has worked in different patients and it is they who are privy to the numerous aforementioned studies about the different risks and benefits of each Biologic relative to certain IBD patient histories and/or to their respective known disease etiologies. In that regard, all I ask is that these gastroenterologists act pursuant to a “Treatment Plan” which THEY devise based on their experience, knowledge of Biologic agents and their understanding of each IBD patient’s disease. IBD patients who need Biologics to stave off surgery certainly have enough to worry about that they should not be tasked with figuring out which Biologic drug they should be taking for maximum effectiveness in treating their specific case of IBD.
IBD Biologics (immunomodulators) vs. Chemotherapy (or immunosuppressive) drugs
The potential side effects from Biologics can be as serious as those from chemotherapy but the underlying rational of how each treatment works is different. Biologics are referred to as Anti-TNF agents which specifically describes exactly what they do, that is, they slow down a certain protein/enzyme naturally created by the human body (namely, TNF) which is summoned by the body’s intestinal immune system to combat what it perceives to be threatening intestinal bacteria. But people with IBD have intestinal immune systems which are “over-active” in that when they send TNF proteins to fix the problem and re-balance the bacterial components of the intestine, these TNF proteins either don’t know when to stop “fixing” the problem or they do so in such a way that they cause increased abnormal intestinal inflammation. The consequences of this increased abnormal intestinal inflammation in people genetically predisposed to IBD can then initiate IBD or make those with IBD even sicker by way of more severe gastrointestinal problems or due to peripheral manifestations of IBD such as sacroiliitis, cataracts, inflammatory respiratory infections, virulent infections, organ failures, etc.
Soon after scientists definitively identified this role of TNFs in IBD, a few biologic drugs were created which effectuate a regulatory impact on these TNFs to prevent them from over-inflaming the intestine, which has scientifically known critical subsequent consequences causing or worsening IBD in patients who are genetically predisposed to it. A problem with Biologics is that they are predicated on a theory tantamount to using a blowtorch to kill an annoying mosquito resting on a pillow. More specifically, while these Biologics do exactly what they are supposed to, they are systemically administered and the aforementioned invented drugs which regulate TNF proteins can also evidently have a variety of deleterious effects on different organs and systems within the human body.
Why is there a problem with IBD Biologics?
It seems fundamentally sound to expect tampering with the human body’s chemistry (as in the case of regulating TNFs) to trigger reactive effects in other parts of the body, especially when the “tampering” is done systemically and not in a direct, targeted fashion, but the continued extreme suffering of IBD patients who had exhausted all other treatment options was understandably the priority in the creation of anti-TNF Biologic agents. But it’s as if these Biologic drugs were created so myopically to influence one of the first major scientific IBD discoveries of practical and therapeutic significance that no one seemed to address the possible or even likely side effects of such potent body chemistry altering medication. But I assume the FDA approved these Biologic medications because the Biologic drug manufacturers presented a statistically-relevant number of “studies” which convincingly indicated most people do not experience serious side effects from Biologic drugs which work exactly as designed in treating IBD and potentially creating a state of IBD remission.
That said, the side effects of Biologic agents have been known to cause medical problems more painful and debilitating than any IBD flare-up in the patients who are the unlucky ones in whom Biologics are either ineffective or cause dangerous allergic reactions or serious side effects ranging from liver problems to cancer to disabling and even lethal lung infections.
Accordingly, the possible serious side effects of immunomodulator IBD Biologic drugs occur differently than those resulting from the immunosuppressive side effects of chemotherapy. Notwithstanding the foregoing, there are numerous prestigious and comprehensive IBD research projects currently going on or being undertaken which acknowledge the aforementioned potential pitfalls and potential serious side effects of IBD Biologics and thus are focused on treating other known IBD intestinal triggers but with more targeted and potentially “personalized” drug therapies since no two cases of Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis are seemingly alike due to the significant IBD causation role played by the complex interaction of genetics, the body’s immune systems and environmental factors.