Let’s Chat About … Why Natural History and Patient Outcome Studies Matter

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Amid the intricacies of researching treatments and cures for rare diseases, such as Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) and other inherited retinal diseases (IRDs), the patient remains the major focus.

Researcher Jonathan Stokes says he takes a holistic approach in developing and evaluating patient-health outcomes in clinical trials that include focusing on signs and symptoms of disease, health-related quality of life for patients, understanding unmet needs, and exploring the burden of disease.

“Patient voices matter,” he said.

Stokes is Director of Patient-Centered Outcomes Research for AbbVie, a Chicago-based biopharmaceutical company. He holds a Master’s in Business Administration from Northeastern University and has a devoted interest in understanding and bringing to light the patient voice and perspective, with more than 16 years of research study design and implementation experience.

He primarily works in health-outcomes research, specifically developing and evaluating clinical outcomes of assessments (COAs) used in clinical trials to substantiate treatment benefit.

Sofia Sees Hope featured Stokes in an April 19 webinar episode of “Let’s Chat About…Why natural history and patient outcome studies are important.” Elissa Bass, Director of Marketing and Communications for Sofia Sees Hope, moderated the session that is part of the organization’s free, monthly webseries

We developed the series with the LCA and IRD communities in mind but invite all members of our community, including those in research, industry, and the regulatory communities to join any of the sessions as we look ahead to a common goal of advancing treatments for rare retinal disease.

Objective Versus Subjective Gauges

Patient-centered outcomes are evaluations of a patient’s health status and provide valuable information on how patients feel and function.

Vision measured by navigating a maze renders a tangible, objective result, as do blood tests that reveal cell counts or measures that evaluate tumor size in oncology. 

Certain conditions, or aspects of a given condition, express themselves in ways only known to the patient, such as fatigue with mitochondrial diseases or pain with migraines. These subjective experiences can be assessed in studies and through outcome measures, such as daily diaries or questionnaires. These assessments involve years of qualitative and quantitative research, and they are designed after consulting with patients, their caregivers, doctors, researchers, and literature. 

This information literally is the patient’s voice.

Stokes says, “For me, the question is always the ‘So what?’ What does that mean to the patient?’ ”

He takes an inclusive approach to developing measurements for patient outcomes, considering quality-of-life elements – the effects of a disease emotionally, socially, physically, and in daily activities – to produce valid, reliable results.

“Even if you are not taking part in a clinical trial, these are all steps that need to be done to make sure we’re doing it the right way.”

The information, in turn, is shared back with the patient community. 

“These kinds of things matter to people,” he said. “Their feelings are not just idiosyncratic to themselves.”

This research is critical to the drug approval process and important to all stakeholders – patients, care givers, researchers, regulators, and drug developers – to create what Stokes calls a true partnership.

Health-outcomes research plays an important role in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research that specifically targets patient involvement through its Patient-Focused Drug Development (PFDD) program.

“PFDD is a systematic approach to help ensure that patients’ experiences, perspectives, needs, and priorities are captured and meaningfully incorporated into drug development and evaluations,” according to the FDA.

The goal is to better incorporate the patient’s voice in drug development and evaluation, which ultimately results in an FDA-published document called “Voice of the Patient.”

Long-term Tracking

Natural History studies also are important to patient outcomes because they reveal the patient experience over time as researchers observe features in the absence of any treatment. These data give knowledge and an independent understanding of the disease, while establishing an essential foundation for building drug development programs. A Natural History study also can be used as a control arm serving as a placebo in a clinical trial.

The studies track the course of a patient’s disease, identifying demographic, genetic, environmental, and other variables that shape the drug development process. They give scientists and researchers a better estimate of the prevalence of the disease, help identify biomarkers, affect clinical outcome assessments, and determine the feasibility of established assessments for clinical trials. 

More than ever, Stokes said, all stakeholders in the drug development process come together and work toward a solution best for the patient.

“Patients are at the center of everything we do.”

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