The Scleroderma Chronicles: Song of the Cell, Dance of the Cytokines

I’m reading a really wonderful book right now that is really speaking to me on so many levels.

This man is a BioGeek of the first order! He interweaves his experiences, patients, memories, and the history of cells together in a way that makes me green with envy. He unpacks the history of our understanding of cells by bringing those scientists to life in a way that makes me care about them; if only I could write that well. He is the teacher that I wish I had been as he reveals to us how cells work together to create complex human systems, and then ties all of that to the treatment of disease. I’m still in the first parts of the book, but I have already filled my kindle with highlights and notes.

This book was published at the exact right moment when I needed it. I have totally gone down the rabbit hole at PubMed over the last two weeks as I have read paper after paper while chasing down the major players in my chronic conditions (why am I sick, and what exactly are these new meds doing…) and how they link to inflammation. Why would anyone do something like this?

Well, it all comes down to this. I’m on high-risk drugs with some serious side effectss, and I want to make informed decisions about whether I continue taking them. I also had a run-in with elderberry juice, and was rescued by green chile; as a BioGeek I was sucked down the curiosity rabbit hole after that whole adventure. What? That doesn’t happen to you? Listen, it has been so bad I haven’t even been knitting!!!

These are the two drugs that I’m trying to understand. In his book Siddhartha Mukherjee argues that our understanding of cells, and how they work, has transformed medicine into the modern miracle that I am currently benefiting from. Drugs that directly interact with the molecular machinery of cells, the signals between them and the biochemical pathways that cells use to function, are the first of the major transformative directions modern medicine is taking in the treatment of so many pathologies such as cancer, diabetes, neurological, and autoimmune diseases such as mine.

Systemic sclerosis is really darn complicated, as it turns out, and the sequence of events that have been happening in my body are so convoluted it’s hard to track them all. It started in the cells lining my blood vessels. As those cells got injured, they sent out signals that activated parts of my immune system. Signals from the immune cells caused other cells to transform and they began to produce scar tissue… scleroderma means “hard skin”, the hallmark of my condition. Whew. Here’s a condensed version of all that if you want to torture yourself and/or fall asleep.

Let’s go back to my meds. Ambrisentan blocks a molecule that is involved in making blood vessels constrict and raises blood pressure when it is active. That molecule, endothelin, is getting turned off by the drug, and there is evidence that this will improve my exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and will also keep it from progressing; it plays nice with my other pulmonary hypertension drug which shuts down an enzyme pathway involved in blood pressure. Ofev is my new (fairy dust) drug, and it disables some of the essential enzymes in the cells of my lungs that are involved in creating scar tissue. Interstitial lung disease is currently the leading cause of death for systemic sclerosis patients; mine is being treated by side railing the process in the cells that are essential players in the pathology.

Yay! Molecular trickery at the cellular level saves the day! I will be staying on these meds as long as I can.

Dancing to the tune of the song of immune system cells are cytokines, the messenger molecules that travel between immune system cells and other cells that they interact with. The dance is complex, with all the different messengers traveling through the blood to target cells in the body, latching on and causing the cells to take actions. Some cytokines increase inflammation, and other will shut it down. Your immune system can get dialed up or shut down, depending on what the messages are. In my travels through research papers at PubMed I focused first on what cytokines were involved in systemic sclerosis, and then I hunted for papers that had measured the levels of these cytokines when people ate different foods.

Foods that you consume can make a big difference, evidently. Elderberry made me much worse (I cried in two different doctor’s offices), and green chile saved the day. I was done doing google searches for “anti-inflammatory foods” and was going after hard data.

.What did you expect? I’m a BioGeek. OF COURSE I made a spreadsheet with the data!

Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFα) is a big driver in the whole systemic sclerosis story along with Interferon gamma (IFN-γ). They cause an increase in two more cytokines that promote inflammation, Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β). All four of these bad boys will make my inflammation worse and (probably… I’m guessing here) encourage my conditions to progress. A lot of these foods/supplements will lower the levels of these cytokines, which explains why I feel better when I eat them. ELDERBERRY increases three of these cytokines which is why I felt like death warmed over while drinking it. Google said it was anti-inflammatory… can you see why I switched to research papers and cytokines? Green chile stew has tomatoes and green chile in it (and some yummy pork and garlic!); no wonder it turned things around. I will try to eat as many of the “good” foods as I can, but I’m going to focus on ones that really shut down TNFα and IL-6. I’m ignoring the IL-10 and CRP info because it wasn’t really as well supported as the others, and I know that my CRP (C-Reactive Protein) levels are normal.

My lunch smoothie: tart cherries, raspberries, banana, spinach, yogurt, chia seed (gag) and cranberry juice. For dinner I’m having a green chile cheesy corn pudding thing that tastes pretty darn good.

Wow. Did you read all of that stuff above? You deserve a prize for perseverance.

Here’s your prize. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” picture, but this one is Where’s Hannah!

So, there is all is. Inside my systemic sclerosis, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung disease self, there are all these dancing cytokines, following the song of cells. Scientists who were captured by all of this and who were entranced by the Song of the Cell have developed the drugs that are treating the two life-threatening complications of systemic sclerosis that have come my way. Inside me, the promise of the song goes on.

Time to get back to my book.

Notes:

  • Okay, I made a whole other spreadsheet with links to all of the research papers that I used to get some understanding about these cytokines, and which were important in my disease. You don’t want to see all of that, right? If you do, say so in a comment and I’ll send some links your way!
  • I became curious about what is happening with Covid patients and the cytokine storm that can cause severe symptoms. Yep. It’s happening because of TNFα, IFN-γ, and IL-6. If you catch Covid, I don’t recommend elderberry.
  • Clinical trials are currently underway to see if an IL-6 inhibitor will be an effective treatment for systemic sclerosis.
  • I’m a lucky, lucky girl. I have a degree in molecular biology, used to work in an immunology lab that focused on IL-1, was involved in a scleroderma research project, and finished up my lab days on a project looking at the impact of capsaicin on rheumatoid arthritis. I can almost understand what I’m reading on PubMed. Almost.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: This Drug isn’t Fairy Dust…

Oh, boy. I have been having adventures in my ongoing dice game with the Reaper. My (wonderful) pulmonologist started me on a high-risk drug towards the end of August to slow down the formation of scar tissue in my lungs due to my interstitial lung disease. Oh, boy. The side effects were not exactly great as I battled ongoing GI side effects and started to lose weight again.

My doctors get kind of worked up when I lose weight.

What?!!

I know, like this is a bad thing? Here’s their thought process: there is a correlation between weight loss and poor prognosis, so my docs tend to focus on the one factor that I can control. Ugh. I sadly moved onto a diet of chia seed puddings, rice, and bananas while gulping down fiber tablets. After a week the tide seemed to turn, and I was eating more.

This is the new drug, just recently approved for the direct treatment of scleroderma-associated interstitial lung disease. Yay Ofev!

Ofev entered the scene just recently. I first heard about it in the early years of my scleroderma journey, and it was approved for use about three years ago. It took a few weeks for me to get enrolled to receive this drug and I need to go for mandatory blood testing each month before I can get my next month’s supply.

There is a significant risk of blood clots, and the pharmacist really stressed that I should watch for bruising.

A few days after my appetite returned, I woke up with a sore and swollen leg; I was also bleeding from both nostrils. When I looked at my leg there was a large bruise that grew to be about 6 inches across… not good, little BLZ, not good!! Yep. There was an immediate full stop on the drug for a week, and then I was started at a half dose a week later. A week after I had restarted Ofev my pulmonologist called to check up on me. No bleeding, but I was dealing with stomach discomfort.

He gave me the Fairy Dust talk. “There is no magic cure, and this drug is not fairy dust.” he said, “Drug companies can manipulate data to make drugs look better than they really are; I can’t stand for you to be miserable on this drug. There is a case to be made for focusing on quality of life as opposed to quantity of life.” (Well, that’s not discouraging at all, right?!) As he and I talked I remembered my conversation with the pharmacist; she had stressed how important it was to take the pills exactly 12 hours apart to maintain a steady blood level… I was taking the high dose only once a day at that point, so I was probably experiencing a spike every day in my bloodstream. I asked for a script for the lower dose and convinced him that I should try that for a month even though the total amount each day would be more. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a little bleeding and a couple of little bruises, but nothing like I saw on the higher dose.

I moved to the lower dose twice a day three weeks ago. While that was going on my roses started blooming again.

A week ago, I went for more lung and heart testing. I bought green chili cheese fries and a chocolate shake on my way home because… my GI tract has decided that it loves me and I’m hungry again! Besides… green chile cheese fries!!! The results came in last Friday. My oxygen is better, and I can walk farther than a year ago! My pulmonologist doesn’t need to see me for 6 months. My heart testing and bloodwork was used by my cardiologist in a predictive model that returned a result of… low risk of pulmonary hypertension progression at this time. My heart failure numbers did double, but he isn’t all that concerned; he doesn’t need to see me for another 6 months.

I hung up the phone after the last call and thought to myself… maybe Ofev is Fairy Dust after all, because… I. Am. Better. This has been 2 months of NOT FUN, but the proof is in the pudding.

By the way, chia seed pudding, highly recommended by my pulmonologist, is just plain nasty! Chia seeds, without any doubt, are not fairy dust!!!

To be fair, it probably isn’t all Ofev; after all, it has been pointed out to me that it is not a magic cure. I started other drugs to control my pulmonary hypertension over the last year. I have made a lot of adjustments on my end to handle my lung disease. All of my down products are out of the house. I bought a new humidifier that can be easily cleaned each week. I put a high-grade filter into the furnace and bought an air purifier. I take all my drugs right on schedule and I do gulp down fiber-rich foods that are keeping any symptoms under control (except chia pudding… see above).

Okay, Reaper. You won a couple of the tosses, but this one is totally mine.

Pass the Fairy Dust and roll the dice.

This BLZ is ready to play!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Lung Biopsy Story

Last Monday, May 2nd, was the date of my lung biopsy procedure. My pulmonologist had diagnosed me with interstitial lung disease a couple of months ago and the biopsy was required to definitively diagnose the type of ILD I had. This is kind of complicated, but the simple reason for the biopsy is that I don’t really fit the profile of the usual scleroderma ILD patient, and the treatment is expensive and somewhat risky. Biopsy time.

At 4:30am Monday morning my son drove me through the rainy dark to the hospital where I was going to be admitted for the surgery. I had on my new raspberry clogs for good luck, and I was exhausted after being up most of the night completing pre-op tasks at home. I was fighting off a sense of impending disaster…

Image retrieved online from Wikipedia Commons at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Respiratory_failure

The day I met with the surgeon he drew a funky little drawing on his white board to explain what he was going to do. Check out the diagram above: your right lung is actually different from the left with more tissue and three lobes. My surgeon planned to use special instruments guided by a tiny video camera (VATS) to go through my chest wall and get the tissue samples. This is a minimally invasive procedure that will only take a few minutes. The catch: the right lung will be deflated before he takes the samples.

Atelectasis is the medical term for a collapsed lung. Both of my lungs were experiencing incomplete atelectasis at the time of my last CT scan, and I’d been getting steadily worse all April. I was a little concerned, but I trusted that all would work out fine in the end. I was prepped, bundled up, and rolled off to surgery. There was the most fantastical robotic surgery machine in there, but before I even got a great look at it, I was on the table, a mask was put over my face and I was gone…

… and I emerged from unconsciousness at the bottom of a rugby scrum with all these faces looking down at me. I was in pain, a lot of pain, and I couldn’t breathe at all. The muscles on the right side of my back were seized up and cramped in what felt like Charlie horses, and I was thrashing around as I tried to get someone to rub on my back muscles. The rugby players in masks (I was later told that there were 8 of them) were attempting to hold me down as they put hot packs under my back, removed my oxygen cannula, and placed a larger oxygen mask over my face. “Do you remember the Xray?” one of them asked. Oh. That’s what set off the muscle cramps. My oxygen was below 75% even on highest oxygen flow available in the recovery room. I got transferred to the ICU.

That right lung refused to reinflate. I couldn’t be given any pain medications or fluids until my oxygen levels came up. New doctors began to arrive and talked to me. To be clear, talking set off coughing and was very painful. I just wanted someone to help me, not talk to me! A pulmonologist arrived to doctorsplain my disease to me and informed me that he was changing some of the drugs used to treat my lung and heart conditions. I told him that I didn’t know him, he couldn’t make any changes to my treatment plan without talking to my doctors, and that I needed him to do something right away to handle my immediate situation (I was in acute respiratory failure). He argued about contacting my doctors. I insisted.

I think that I deserve a huge gold star for standing up for myself while in extremis.

I was placed onto a high flow oxygen therapy machine within minutes and my oxygen levels came up.

I kind of look like I was underneath a rugby scrum, huh. That machine delivers heated water vapor and oxygen at the unbelievable rate of 60 liters/minutes. My oxygen came up into the low 90s on the machine and I finally received oxycodone. Yay!!! The last oxygen number on the monitor before I fell asleep was 94%.

The next day they got me up into a chair (more oxycodone!) and I started respiratory therapy to get the lung working again. On Wednesday my chest tube came out and during the day the flow rate on the machine was reduced until I could come off it.

Day three in the ICU. I am off the high flow machine and finally using a normal cannula. I’m still on 15 liters/minute of oxygen at this point.

That annoying pulmonologist came by every single day that I was in the ICU; my doctors had called him back! After talking to them he made some med changes (and told me that it a shared decision) and his manner completely transformed. The physician’s assistant who removed my chest tube told me that she had also read the care notes with all the data, email traffic, and decision-making by my rheumatologist/pulmonologist/cardiologist team. She was struck by the interdisciplinary care that I was receiving and seemed a little wistful and envious.

Another gold star for the team!!

Over the next two days I was slowly titrated down on my oxygen while doing my lung expanding exercises without fail. Late in the morning on Friday I finally escaped.

I put on my raspberry clogs, black leggings, a little black top, and my raspberry-colored down vest. “How cute you are!” exclaimed the nurse. My son drove me home through the late morning light along streets lined with newly leafed trees. While I was in the ICU the world had turned green.

No matter how lifeless and barren things seem over the winter, spring always comes with the promise of fresh starts and new life. I still trust that all will work out fine in the end.

Hannah is so glad to have me home again.

Now we just have to wait for the biopsy results.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The shunt hunt takes a left turn…

I’ve been continuing my adventures in cardiology over the last several weeks. If you have been following along on my scleroderma adventures you know that I had a trip to the Cath lab that led to the discovery of a cardiac shunt: a hole in my heart. I also was eventually diagnosed with exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and started on drugs to treat it, which is a lengthy process as I was slowly titered up on two different drugs while monitoring for side effects. I’ve been mostly living in bed for the last 6 weeks except for short trips out for more testing and blood work. The cats have been loving this, by the way. I’m kind of their captive right now.

This is edema in my arm. I’ve been dealing with headaches, muscle pain, edema, low blood pressure, and extreme fatigue. I cough a lot. Every new weather system is a nightmare. Ugh!

While the whole process has been pretty difficult, I am breathing much, much better and that blue lipped thing has mostly faded away. No more panting!! I haven’t had to put my head down because I felt faint for weeks. This is huge, people!!

I may have to retire the whole BLZ logo the way things are going!

My cardiologist is still hunting for the shunt that was detected in the Cath lab. I have one that they can see (a patent foramen ovale, which is pretty common), but for the really significant disruption of circulation that was detected in the Cath lab the feeling is that I have something much bigger somewhere. I’ve gone through 3 rounds of testing looking for the dang thing, and so far, no joy.

When the test results come in, I always read the entire text and google terms that I don’t recognize. The last imaging of my heart did not find the shunt, and my cardiologist sent an email letting me know that my heart looked pretty good. Umm… okay, but where is that infernal shunt?!!! This is getting a little frustrating, but I am doing better, so I guess I should just roll with it. I did notice this little sentence in the report about the portion of my lungs seen in the heart imaging: “There is mild subpleural reticulation and bibasilar atelectasis.” Say what? I googled and …. bibasilar atelectasis is a partially collapsed lung. I shot off a little email to my pulmonologist to ask if this was something new.

This is why I decided to write this post. As it turns out, this is new. Both of the things that were noted in that test result were significant (subpleural reticulation is evidence of scarring in my lung), and I was immediately sent to get a specialized lung scan that shows I have sustained moderate advancing lung damage over the last 10 months. Oh. No wonder I’m so exhausted. At least they didn’t use the word “severe” in the report. I seem to have developed pulmonary edema and my lungs took a big hit during the last few months; scleroderma is now attacking my lungs. If I hadn’t read that report and then contacted my doctor, no one would have picked up on this. The BLZ may be on hiatus, but the lessons she learned during that drive for the pulmonary hypertension diagnosis really paid off now.

What do you do when you get a sad little lung report? Why, you put on your Catzilla shirt and go start a load of laundry, of course!!

Tuesday I go for a pulmonary function test and then immediately afterwards I will meet with my pulmonologist. I’m kind of thinking that there might be more drugs in my future. Anyway, there is a lesson here that I decided I should share with you all.

Be proactive! Read your test results and ask questions of your doctors. Google is your friend, and those online portals that let you shoot your doctor an email are priceless! Use them!

And now readers, back to the shunt hunt…

Mateo: and now readers, back to my nap! After that I’m going to go swat some more helicopters!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets Her Diagnosis!

At last. I mean, this has been going on for more than 5 years and had reached the point of utter absurdity. If you haven’t been keeping up on all of this, I have been struggling with shortness of breath and sporting blue lips for way too long. I also have pretty significant fatigue, chest pain, and major muscle and joint pain. I’m a mess.

I have a rare autoimmune disease called limited system sclerosis(scleroderma) which makes me high risk for lung and heart issues. People with rare diseases are called “zebras” in the medical community; since I’m sporting blue lips I’m the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). Got that?

My doctors do routine testing to monitor me for heart and lung conditions associated with systemic sclerosis; each time I had an echocardiogram and a high resolution CT scan the results were that I was… fine. No indications of a major problem.

But I was absolutely, positively not fine. I began to refer to the reassurances that all was okay as medical gaslighting. I transferred to new doctors. I got copies of all my test results, did lots of google searches, read research papers and articles in medical journals, and began to have evidence-based discussions with my doctors. They ordered up more aggressive testing of my heart and lungs. I posted about the my right heart catherization and CPET here if you want to catch up.

Last Monday my cardiologist called and gave me the final diagnosis. I have a type of pulmonary hypertension that is exercise-induced that is being complicated by a cardiac shunt in my heart. At rest, for all those previous echocardiograms and CT scans, everything was fine. When I’m in motion it is another story.

So, what exactly is pulmonary hypertension and why am I, as a systemic sclerosis patient, at high risk for it? In the most simple terms, the interiors of my lung arteries are narrowing due to scleroderma scarring and tissue growth; as the openings get smaller, the pressure of blood flowing through the arteries gets higher.

When we exercise the body needs more oxygen delivered to tissues; arteries constrict to raise blood pressure, your heart speeds up and your respiration rate increases. In my case, that constriction of arteries in my lungs makes the blood pressure in the lungs increase too much; blood struggles to get through the pulmonary arteries, and the downstream pressure in my right heart forces blood to flow from the right side, through the shunt, and into the left. My body’s blood pressure zooms up as the left side of the heart fights to push blood out of the heart past the jet of blood coming in from the right side through that dang hole. It’s a catastrophic cascade that happens in seconds, and the entire phenomenon is being driven by my systemic sclerosis created pulmonary hypertension. “You’re a challenging patient,” my cardiologist told me as we talked about my future treatment. Yep. That’s me. A challenge. I excel at challenges.

Last week the new medication that my cardiologist prescribed was shipped overnight express to me by Kaiser’s National Specialty Pharmacy. Kind of unusual, right? That’s because pulmonary hypertension is rare, so there aren’t that many people taking this drug in the US. If I was a Blue-Lipped Zebra before, I am now a BLZ wearing a crown. A periwinkle crown, of course, for pulmonary hypertension.

Hannah: I should have a crown!!

When I started this scleroderma journey one of my doctors told me that it was good to have a diagnosis, even if it was a shame. This is true. I’ve learned a lot since my first blood tests came back hinting at an auto-immune disease that generated a referral to a rheumatologist.

I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to advocate for myself. I’ve learned to take the initiative to learn about my disease and to become an active participant in my treatment plan. I’ve learned to face down the monster and to go on with my life.

Challenge accepted!

This is Pulmonary Hypertension Awareness month. About 15% of systemic sclerosis patients develop pulmonary hypertension as a consequence of their disease. You can learn more about pulmonary hypertension here.