Last updated on July 4th, 2023 at 12:40 pm
The complications associated with immunosuppression vary from DMT to DMT. You will find it helpful to understand what investigations to expect before and during treatment and how these may vary depending on the DMT(s) you are considering.
- Numerous tests are carried out at the start of your treatment (baseline); these include blood, urine and tests for a range of infections.
- Some patients will need tests or procedures specific to their DMT that are inappropriate for everyone with MS – for example, vaccination against some infections; pregnancy and/or genetic counselling; prevention of cardiovascular complications; and management of infusion reactions.
- Ongoing monitoring is required for many but not all of the above factors.
- All licensed MS DMTs have had a thorough risk ̶ benefit assessment, and their benefits are considered to outweigh the potential risks.
Standard tests … and why we do them
If you have read the article on immunosuppression, you will know that immunosuppressive DMTs may reduce white blood cell counts and antibody responses to vaccines and increase the likelihood of some infections and cancers. However, we can reduce the risk of many complications associated with long-term immunosuppression (we use the shorthand ‘de-risk’). This article explains what needs to be done at the start of DMT administration (baseline) and during subsequent monitoring. The specifics, however, vary from DMT to DMT.
Tests at baseline (before starting DMT administration) include full blood count, platelets, liver, kidney and thyroid function tests, and a urine screen. Recording baseline immunoglobulin levels is particularly important if you are about to start an anti-CD20 therapy (ocrelizumab, ofatumumab or rituximab) so that we have a reference level for future comparisons.
Serum protein electrophoresis is done for patients considering starting interferon-beta; having a so-called monoclonal gammopathy (an abnormal immunoglobulin) is a contraindication to starting an interferon-beta formulation in people with MS. The drug has been associated with a form of capillary leak syndrome, leading in rare cases to death from an adult respiratory distress syndrome.
The table below summarises the routine investigations required at baseline; subsequent sections provide further detail.
Tests routinely carried out at the start of treatment (baseline).
AHSCT, autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation; CMV, cytomegalovirus; CSF, cerebrospinal fluid; DMT, disease-modifying therapy; EBV, Epstein ̶ Barr virus; ECG, electrocardiogram; FBC, full blood count; HIV, human immunodeficiency virus; HPV, human papillomavirus; JCV, JC virus; LFTs, liver function tests; MMR, measles/mumps/rubella; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; PCP, pneumocystis pneumonia; PML, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy; TB ELISpot, tuberculosis enzyme-linked immune absorbent spot; TFTs, thyroid function tests; U&E, urea and electrolytes; VZV, varicella zoster virus.
At our centre, we screen for a relatively large number of infectious diseases so that we can treat any subclinical infection before starting a DMT. This is particularly relevant for HIV-1 and 2, hepatitis B and C, syphilis and tuberculosis (TB).
Screening for the JC virus (JCV), which causes progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), is only really needed for people with MS considering starting natalizumab. Even if you are JCV positive, you can be treated with natalizumab for 6 ̶ 12 months and sometimes longer if you are prepared to take on the risk and the extra monitoring required to detect PML early.
We only check measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) status in patients without documentation of full vaccination as children. We check varicella zoster virus (VZV) status before starting immunosuppression and vaccinate seronegative individuals. Currently, we are still using the live VZV vaccine. This will change, and we will likely be offering all people with MS in the UK the component inactive VZV vaccine (Shingrix, that has had its licence extended) to reduce the chances of zoster reactivation in all adults starting immunosuppression. This new Shingrix indication is similar to the pneumococcal vaccine (Pneumovax). Our centre is only recommending Pneumovax in patients about to start an anti-CD20. However, when Shingrix becomes available on the NHS, it will make sense to bundle this with the Pneumovax and make it routine for all people with MS before starting immunosuppressive therapy. Please check with your healthcare team which products are available locally.
Routine tests and monitoring for Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) are only needed for subjects undergoing autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), which causes profound short-term immunosuppression that can result in CMV and EBV reactivation. CMV reactivation also occurs with alemtuzumab, so this needs to be considered when investigating patients who develop complications after receiving alemtuzumab (please see Opportunistic infection in MS).
For patients starting long-term immunosuppression, it is advisable to screen for active human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (by cervical smear or vaginal swab) and for warts or active infection with molluscum contagiosum. Warts are caused by HPV skin infection; molluscum contagiosum is due to a relatively benign pox virus that typically affects young children but occasionally affects adults. Warts and molluscum contagiosum can spread rapidly in patients receiving alemtuzumab, so I recommend treating these skin infections before starting immunosuppression for MS.
We encourage all patients to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and seasonal flu; outside the flu vaccine season, we remind people to get vaccinated during the next vaccine season.
Hepatitis B, meningococcal and Haemophilus influenzae vaccines are considered only for people with MS who are at high risk of infection and have not had these vaccines as part of a national vaccine programme, i.e. healthcare and laboratory workers for hepatitis B, school and university students and military recruits for meningococcal vaccine and paediatric patients for Haemophilus influenzae.
The issue around having the HPV vaccine as an adult is more complex. For example, in the UK, the NHS does not cover the cost of the vaccine for people over 25. In addition, most people have only had the quadrivalent vaccine (Gardasil-4), which covers about two-thirds of the strains that cause cancer. Some people with MS may want to upgrade their immunity with the polyvalent vaccine (Gardasil-9) that covers over 95% of the cancer-causing strains of HPV. For more information on HPV vaccination, please see Case study: cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and ocrelizumab.
MMR is a live vaccine given in childhood (see MMR vaccine: to vaccinate or not? ). Owing to vaccine hesitancy, however, many people do not receive this vaccine as children. Therefore, if an adult with MS is about to start immunosuppressive therapy and has not been vaccinated against MMR, we advise them to do so. This is particularly important for people about to start natalizumab because these viruses are neurotropic and can infect the brain. Natalizumab blocks immune response within the brain; hence, exposure to a neurotropic virus could cause serious infection, similar to what we see with the JC virus – which causes PML.
Travel vaccines for people who travel as part of their work or plan to travel shortly need to be considered. In particular, the yellow fever vaccine is a live vaccine (made from a weakened yellow fever virus strain) and it should ideally be given before someone starts on immunosuppressive therapy.
You may need an ECG (electrocardiogram), to rule out an abnormal heart rhythm or electrical conduction abnormality and to check your left ventricular function (ejection fraction). These abnormalities are a relative contraindication to using the S1P modulators (fingolimod, siponimod, ozanimod, ponesimod), which may affect the conduction of the heart. In patients treated with mitoxantrone, the left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) must be done at baseline and regularly monitored because mitoxantrone is toxic to the heart. If the LVEF drops significantly, further dosing of mitoxantrone is contraindicated.
Pregnancy, family planning and genetic testing
Many chemotherapy agents used in AHSCT for ablating (extracting) the bone marrow are toxic to the ovaries and testes. Therefore, patients receive counselling before treatment and can have eggs (oocytes) or sperm banked for future use. Egg banking is also an issue for women with MS being treated with mitoxantrone. Men receiving mitoxantrone do not need to bank sperm, however, because mitoxantrone does not cross the testes ̶ blood barrier.
Genetic testing is only required at present if you wish to receive siponimod. Siponimod is metabolised by a specific liver enzyme (biological catalyst) with two functional variants – slow metabolising and fast metabolising. People who carry two slow-metabolising variants of the enzyme cannot receive siponimod. Intermediate metabolisers (those that carry one slow- and one fast-metabolising version of the enzyme) receive low-dose siponimod, while those with two fast-metabolising enzymes receive high-dose siponimod.
Protecting against progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy
I have included magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and lumbar puncture with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) testing for JCV among the baseline tests. This is specific to patients at high risk of developing PML who are switching from natalizumab to a depleting immune reconstitution therapy such as alemtuzumab or another therapy that depletes their immune system (e.g. cladribine or an anti-CD20 therapy). These tests are done to exclude asymptomatic PML, which will otherwise be carried over to the new treatment. The effects of these immunosuppressive therapies on your immune system cannot be rapidly reversed, which is a problem because immune reconstitution is needed to clear PML. Most MS centres do not mandate CSF testing in this situation because it does not always reveal the presence of PML. However, I still request this test on my patients to gain as much information as possible on which to base potentially life-changing decisions.
Prophylactic antivirals and antibiotics
Patients in our centre undergoing AHSCT or receiving alemtuzumab will be given antivirals and antibiotics to reduce the likelihood of certain infections. This is particularly relevant for listeriosis, which is a rare infection transmitted via food. We also encourage all our patients to start and maintain a specific diet to reduce the chances of listeriosis. The risk of listeriosis is only present for a short period when both the adaptive and innate immune systems are compromised, that is, for 4 weeks after receiving alemtuzumab, so we recommend antibiotic prophylaxis for 4 weeks. Our online resource provides more information about listeriosis. If you live in the UK, you can order our free listeriosis prevention kit, which contains a booklet (also downloadable) and various practical items to help keep you safe.
Strategies for limiting the risks from immune reconstitution therapies and infusion DMTs.
When you use agents that cause cell lysis (breakdown), such as alemtuzumab and intravenous anti-CD20 therapies, the contents of cells cause infusion reactions. To prevent such reactions or reduce their severity, we pretreat patients with corticosteroids, antihistamines and antipyretics. The exact protocols for each DMT differ; for example, ocrelizumab infusion reactions are generally only a problem with the first and second doses; therefore, many centres don’t give steroids with the third and subsequent infusions. The latter was particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was shown that the recent administration of high-dose steroids increased your chances of severe COVID-19.
Once someone has been treated with a DMT, ongoing monitoring is required. What gets monitored and how frequently depends on the individual DMT. For a list of DMTs associated with important adverse events, please see our summary Table in ‘De-risking’ guide: monitoring requirements of individual DMTs.
The regulatory authorities usually put in place specific monitoring requirements, which can differ worldwide. It is important that you also enrol in your national cancer screening programmes. Being on chronic immunosuppression increases your chances of developing secondary malignancies, so please remain vigilant.
Tests carried out regularly as part of ongoing monitoring.
FBC, full blood count; LFTs, liver function tests; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; PML, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy; TFTs, thyroid function tests; U&E, urea and electrolytes.
I want to reassure you that all licensed MS DMTs have undergone a thorough risk ̶ benefit assessment by the drug regulators, and the benefits of these treatments are considered to outweigh the potential risks. On balance, the level of immunosuppression associated with MS DMTs is typically mild to moderate; hence, the complications are relatively uncommon. MS is a bad disease and, if left to run its natural course, would result in most patients becoming disabled. To learn more about the natural course of MS, please read the section entitled What are the consequences of not treating MS?