Conference Coverage

In MS, children aren’t just little adults



– Multiple sclerosis (MS) presents quite differently in children than adults, a neurologist told colleagues, but many treatments are the same. The key is to remember the unique needs of pediatric MS patients, their specific challenges, and the difference that can be made through therapy.

director of neuroimmunology research at the University of Dr. Jennifer Graves, director of neuroimmunology research at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Rady Children’s Pediatric MS Clinic Brian Hoyle/MDedge News

Dr. Jennifer Graves

“We need to treat them when they’re young, perhaps, to prevent disability later on,” said Jennifer Graves, MD, PhD, director of neuroimmunology research at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Rady Children’s Pediatric MS Clinic.

Fortunately, “they tend to respond to any DMT [disease-modifying therapy] you give them,” said Dr. Graves, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

Unlike the adult version, pediatric MS is almost never progressive, she said, and the relapsing form affects 85%-99% of those with the condition.

And children with MS suffer from high relapse rates. “In some of the more recent studies, the annual relapse rates have been two to even five to six times higher than in adults,” she related.

For acute relapses, Dr. Graves recommends IV methylprednisolone as a first-line treatment. High-dose oral steroids can be appropriate in teenagers, and plasma exchange is a second-line option.

DMT does work in children. “They’re just so inflammatory, having so much activity, that they tend to respond to anything,” she noted.

With few exceptions, DMTs have been tested in children, she said. But the trials in children have tended to be small, and only fingolimod (Gilenya) is Food and Drug Administration–approved for pediatric patients (aged 10-18 years).

What’s the best DMT for kids? “There is evidence that the higher-potency drugs may work better in some patients,” Dr. Graves said. “I diagnosed a 4 year old with MS. With an annual relapse rate of 6, I had no hesitancy about jumping to the highest-potency agent I had available.”

She cautioned, however, that there may never be deep insight into the best choices because of it is not feasible to study all the available DMTs in children.

Dr. Graves offered these tips about treating children with MS:

  • Be prepared to spend long periods educating children and their parents. “You think you spend a long time with your adult patients? Double it,” she said. “Most new patient appointments will be 90 minutes at least. Negotiate that time for the patients in your clinic who are very young.”
  • Don’t separate kids from parents. “I discourage parents from asking their children to leave the room. Everyone should know what the choices are as much as possible and having the children on the same page can help with compliance,” Dr. Graves said.
  • Consider unique safety considerations. “Children are less likely to be JC [John Cunningham] virus antibody-positive than adults, and we can feel more confident with agents that cause PML [progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy],” she said. “But they’re more likely to convert on our watch.”
  • Consider mentioning sexual function to teens. As adolescents, “they’re unsure of sexual function to begin with, and they often don’t know if they’re normal in terms of sexual function.” Don’t forget that contraceptives may be appropriate because some MS drugs are teratogenic. “Have a lengthy and realistic conversation about birth control,” Dr. Graves said, “and maybe ask the parents to leave the room.”

Dr. Graves disclosed receiving speaking honoraria from Novartis and Sanofi Genzyme, and grants from Biogen and Genentech.

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