Woman with Rare Autoimmune Disease Undergoes High-Risk Treatment

Shelley Clark-Collins and her partner Mark Doyle have travelled to Ottawa, Ontario so that she can receive an innovative treatment for her rare autoimmune disease (Photo: CBC News)

Shelley Clark-Collins, a 56-year-old woman from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, is looking to undergo a high-risk procedure to treat her rare autoimmune disease.

Clark-Collins lives with dermatomyositis, an autoimmune condition in which her body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks her healthy cells, causing inflammatory, painful and degenerative changes to her skin and muscles. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, symptoms of the disease include rashes and spotting on the skin, swelling, stiff joints, muscle weakness and aches, difficulty swallowing, voice changes, fatigue, fever, and weight loss. Dermatomyositis can also cause other autoimmune and connective disease conditions, like lupus, and increase the risk of developing cancer.

Dermatomyositis is extremely rare, affecting fewer than 10 in 1 million people, according to an estimate from the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). The disease most often occurs in adults ages 40-60, and juvenile dermatomyositis occurs most commonly in children and youth between the ages of 5 and 15.

Because of its rarity, Clark-Collins had a difficult time getting diagnosed. As a hairdresser, she suddenly found that she was so weak, she could no longer hold up a blow dryer or stand for long periods of time. She was falling down frequently, couldn’t get out of the bathtub, or lift her bed sheets. She was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) after a neurologist found a lesion in her brain.

“But what he was treating me with [for MS] wasn’t working,” explained Clark-Collins. After seeing numerous specialists, she was diagnosed with “everything but the kitchen sink,” she recalls, including cancer, arthritis, and Grave’s disease. A dermatologist even told her that she should see a psychiatrist for Empty Nest Syndrome as a result of her kids moving out.

Despite these setbacks, Clark-Collins was eventually correctly diagnosed with dermatomyositis through blood work and muscle biopsies. Since then, the disease has affected her health and wellbeing substantially. Prior to developing the disease, she was an avid marathon runner and outdoor enthusiast, enjoying kayaking, rock climbing, and skiing. Now, she says that walking to her car is a feat. She sleeps in a chair because getting in and out of bed is too difficult with her muscle weakness. She has difficulty swallowing and talking, and has suffered irreparable damage to her heart and lungs. She’s had a stroke, blood clots, and a life-threatening sepsis infection.

Dr. Harold Atkins is pioneering a new treatment designed to help patients with dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease.

However, Clark-Collins has found hope in a new procedure being pioneered by Ottawa, Ontario-based Dr. Harold Atkins. The innovative procedure is a combination of intense chemotherapy and a blood stem cell transplant. The chemotherapy will destroy her diseased immune system, and the stem cells from her bone marrow will be removed, purified and re-injected into her body. It’s a risky and aggressive procedure that aims to reset her immune system – but there are no guarantees that it will work. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, re-setting her immune system also leaves her extremely vulnerable to contagious diseases, meaning she could easily die should she catch the virus.

Despite the risks, Clark-Collins says she’s “very excited,” and is looking forward to the possibility of reclaiming her life. As a mother of two adult children, she says “it’s been hard on [my kids] to watch me decline like that.”

Plus, she’s running out of options. She has developed a resistance to several of her medications already, she can’t take large doses of steroids for much longer, and her opioid painkiller can cause an addiction. She also goes to the hospital once a week for plasmapheresis, a procedure in which her plasma (the liquid part of the blood) is separated from her blood cells, and is replaced with new plasma. But this treatment isn’t guaranteed to work forever.

With this new treatment, the hope is that her dermatomyositis will go into remission. Clark-Collins says she dreams of being able to regain her independence, start running again, and just to be able to hug her children without excruciating pain.

“Just maybe [I’ll] get a little big of my life back,” she said hopefully.

To learn more about Clark-Collins’ battle with dermatomyositis, read the full story on CBC News.

Woman Describes Battle with Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO)

Cealie Lawrence (right) has been battling a rare autoimmune disease affecting her eyes, spinal cord and brain. The symptoms were so debilitating, she moved in with her son Robert (left) to cope. Image courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch.

60-year-old Cealie Lawrence was working as a server at a local restaurant in the Columbus, Ohio area when she experienced a sudden change in her vision.

“I couldn’t see anything but darkness and a little light,” Lawrence said. “I panicked.”

Essentially blind in both eyes, she was taken by her co-worker to a local hospital where healthcare workers ran numerous tests on her, including a spinal tap. Unfortunately, the cause of her sudden blindness couldn’t be found – so she spent a week in hospital.

Lawrence was eventually diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the optic nerves, spinal cord, and the brain. The condition can lead to blindness and even paralysis. It is also known as neuromyelitis optica (NMO) and Devic’s disease.

Dr. Geoffrey Eubank, Medical Director of the Mid-Ohio MS Center at OhioHealth Neurological Physicians, stated, “We know how bad [neuromyelitis optica] can be. We know it can put people in wheelchairs, make them blind, really impact them…This is a disease that frightens us.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are an estimated 4,000 people living with NMOSD in the United States, and 250,000 living with the condition worldwide. Neuromyelitis optica is similar to multiple sclerosis (MS), since it’s also an autoimmune disease that impacts the central nervous system and disrupts the flow of information between the body an the brain, leading to permanent damage and deterioration of the nerves.

Eighty percent of those diagnosed with NMO are women. It occurs most commonly between the ages of 40 and 50, however, it’s been discovered in children as young as 3 and adults as old as 90. Research has found that demyelinating diseases are more common among certain populations, such as Africans, Asians and Native Americans.

As for Lawrence, her eyesight did slowly return after her stay in hospital, but she started suffering paralysis from the neck down months later. She then started physical and occupational therapy, which eventually allowed her to walk again. Despite this win, Lawrence’s NMO continued to relapse, and over a period of seven years, she made over 100 hospital visits.

“It was really bad,” she said, noting that the symptoms of her chronic illness were so debilitating, that they caused her to move in with her son Robert for help.

Five years ago, however, Lawrence found a ray of hope; she was enrolled in a clinical trial at OhioHealth for a new drug called Enspryng, a promising treatment for NMOSD, that’s been shown to reduce attacks of the disease. Since receiving the treatment, Lawrence says she hasn’t experienced a single NMO relapse.

“It’s a miracle,” she said of the drug Enspryng, which was officially approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in August 2020 for the treatment of NMOSD. This makes the drug the third approved treatment for the disorder, in addition to Soliris, which was approved in June 2019, and Uplizna, approved in June 2020.

“Thank God for the development of this medication because I truly believe it’s going to help a lot of people in my situation,” she said. “This is my second chance at life and [to live] more abundantly.”

Lawrence has since been able to move out of her son’s place and is now living independently.

“I was just existing before. I take care of me now,” she said proudly, noting that she is now enjoying her passion for cooking, playing with her grandchildren, and is even going back to school to pursue a degree in counseling.

“That’s a passion of mine because a lot of individuals, especially my age, that are suffering in silence,” she said. “I believe I could be a big influence and a big help to them.”

Lawrence credits her recovery to having a determined attitude and her faith in God.

“If I didn’t have God in my life, I truly feel that I wouldn’t be here right now,” she explained. “I had faith all along that even when I was paralyzed, lying in that hospital bed on my back, not being able to feed myself or do anything for myself…I maintained that I was not going to be flat on my back for the rest of my life.”

To learn more about Lawrence’s remarkable journey with NMO, read her full story in The Columbus Dispatch.

Queen Latifah Raises Awareness about Scleroderma

Queen Latifah with her mother, Rita Owens, who passed away in 2018 after a five-year battle with Scleroderma. Photo credit: Johnny Nunez.

Queen Latifah, an actress, producer and singer, has become an advocate for those living with scleroderma after losing her mother, Rita Owens, to the disease in 2018.

Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, is an autoimmune disease that translates from Greek to ‘hard skin’, since hardening of the skin is one of the most visible manifestations of the disease, according to the Scleroderma Foundation. Symptoms of scleroderma can vary widely from person to person, and its effects can range from mild to life threatening. One of the most life threatening effects of scleroderma is that it can cause tissues on major organs to harden. In approximately 25% of patients, scleroderma results in interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring of the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe, which may also be fatal for the patient.

Unfortunately, this is what happened to Rita Owens. A lifelong educator, she passed out when teaching in her classroom. Though she had experienced shortness of breath and dry cough for a while, her family had thought it was just a result of her getting older. It wasn’t until she fainted in front of her students that various tests were done and specialists consulted, when she was finally diagnosed with systemic sclerosis-associated interstitial lung disease (SSc-ILD).

Before her passing, Rita Owens was one of approximately 300,000 Americans who suffer from Scleroderma.

In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Latifah said that the diagnosis came as a total shock to her family, saying, “That was terrifying because now we had to figure out, ‘what does it mean to have this autoimmune disease?’ I had never heard of scleroderma before.”

According to the Scleroderma Foundation, scleroderma affects an estimated 300,000 Americans. It’s onset is most frequent between the ages of 25 and 55, and women are four times more likely to have the disease than men. Localized scleroderma is more common in children, whereas adults are more likely to suffer from the systemic version of the disease that is more widespread in the body. Though the exact cause of the disease is unknown, it’s believed that genetic factors can make one more susceptible to the disease, and that it involves an overproduction of collagen.

Since little is known about the disease, Latifah is partnering with Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals to raise awareness as part of the More Than Scleroderma campaign. “The right information and resources are out there and you can start by visiting SclerodermaILD.com. My hope is that I can help make others’ journey with SSc-ILD a little less challenging.”

Though Latifah was devastated to lose her mother after a five-year battle with the disease, she hopes to make a difference in her memory. “I found that knowledge is power when it came to managing my mom’s health, and I want to share what I’ve learned to help others. Anything my mon could do to help someone else have an easier journey, she wanted to be a part of – so it’s important for me to carry on my mom’s mission,” she explained.

To learn more about Scleroderma, visit the Scleroderma Foundation website.