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What is Amyloidosis and How is it Treated?

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What is Amyloidosis and How is it Treated?

Mar 24, 2022
Amyloidosis is a rare and possibly life-threatening disease affecting an estimated 4,000 people per year in the US. If left untreated, the disease can cause severe organ damage, so early detection is vital. Aman Godara, MBBS, is a doctor and amyloidosis specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, and he explains what causes the disease, how to detect it, and what treatments are available to patients.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Amyloidosis is a rare and possibly debilitating disease, which affects about 4,000 people a year in the United States. If left untreated, the disease can cause severe organ damage, so early detection is critical. Dr. Aman Godara is an amyloidosis specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Dr. Godara, first of all, what causes this disease?

Dr. Godara: So amyloidosis is a rare and complex disease where a protein misshapes itself, becomes the amyloid protein, and then deposits in different organs of the body causing damage.

Interviewer: So it collects in different organs?

Dr. Godara: Correct.

Interviewer: And for each patient, it could be a different organ. It could manifest itself differently.

Dr. Godara: The type of protein that's behind amyloidosis could affect what type of organ is involved in the body.

Interviewer: And the diagnosis for a lot of patients can be kind of an aha moment because it can manifest in different ways. Somebody could be experiencing some sort of abdominal pain and just really can't track down what it is, and it ends up being amyloidosis. Explain that a little bit more, that aha moment.

Dr. Godara: So the diagnosis of amyloidosis can be very challenging because, as we mentioned, there are several different types of protein that can cause several different manifestations in the body.

So usually, when a patient is being diagnosed with amyloidosis, the diagnosis requires a biopsy of an organ or a tissue in the body that we suspect would be involved with the amyloidosis.

There have been some newer developments in diagnosing amyloidosis, and that's the type of a nuclear scan that we have started using to diagnose a type of amyloidosis that we call as the ATTR amyloidosis.

Depending on the type of organ that's being damaged by the amyloidosis, the symptoms could vary along. If someone's heart is being damaged with amyloidosis, usually patients with heart damage from amyloidosis experience shortness of breath, they experience swelling in their legs, and when they go to see a cardiologist, they are usually identified to have heart failure.

When amyloidosis affects the kidneys, it can cause leakage of protein in the urine, which can manifest itself as a form of urine. Sometimes patients with amyloidosis have involvement of their nerves and that can manifest as painful neuropathy involving their arms or their legs.

Interviewer: So when somebody is experiencing some of those symptoms, they might go to their family doctor, right? And it sounds like this could be a lot of different things. Is it pretty easily misdiagnosed at first?

Dr. Godara: As the diagnosis for amyloidosis is so challenging, misdiagnosis occurs often because the type of symptoms that come along with amyloidosis can occur from other diseases and other conditions.

If a patient is experiencing symptoms of heart failure, that could manifest from a different number of reasons. When patients have kidney dysfunction, that can also occur from a list of different conditions that can damage the kidneys.

So often at the point of care, when these patients are experiencing symptoms that might be related to amyloidosis, the patients end up seeing multiple different types of specialists before they are diagnosed with amyloidosis.

And there are certainly some delays in diagnosis that, on an average, patients take 6 to 12 months to be diagnosed with amyloidosis from the time their symptoms start.

Interviewer: And that's important because time is really important with this diagnosis because the damage to that particular organ keeps occurring.

Dr. Godara: The damage from amyloidosis is progressive damage. So the longer we are taking to diagnose amyloidosis, the more damage would occur in that organ that's being affected by this disease. So timely diagnosis is of utmost importance.

Patients who are diagnosed earlier in the course of disease might have damage to that organ that could be reversible at that point. But ultimately, if we miss a diagnosis, and it takes a really long time for a patient to be diagnosed with amyloidosis, that damage to the kidney or to the heart could end up being an irreversible damage that even treatments would not be able to recover from.

Interviewer: That's really challenging because as a person that has a condition, sometimes you have to go through some multiple diagnoses to figure out what it is. Is there any piece of information that a patient might have that would indicate earlier than later that it is an amyloidosis?

Dr. Godara: So patients who are suspected to have amyloidosis usually require a comprehensive evaluation to identify the type of amyloidosis and to identify the manifestations of it. So the workup depends quite a bit on the type of amyloidosis that we are suspecting.

If we are suspecting lichen amyloidosis, that occurs from the excess of lichens, the first and the foremost test that we perform for those patients are blood and urine testing to identify if they have an excess of lichens, which could ultimately be causing amyloidosis.

If patients have an excess of immunoglobulin lichens in their blood or urine, the next step for those patients is to have a bone marrow biopsy to identify any clone in the bone marrow that might be producing these excess lichens and ultimately the amyloidosis.

The other type of amyloidosis that we commonly see is the ATTR amyloidosis, which occurs off a defect in the transthyretin protein that is being produced by the liver. Patients who have ATTR amyloidosis could either be patients who have developed this type of amyloidosis because of old age or this could also be the type of amyloidosis that runs in the family.

So if we are suspecting a patient with ATTR amyloidosis, and we suspect that they have some cardiac damage from it, there is a nuclear scan of the heart that can help us identify this type of amyloidosis. This scan is called as the PYP scan. Patients who have a more genetic form of ATTR amyloidosis, we have genetic testing that can be done either through a swab or a blood test that can help us identify the hereditary type of ATTR amyloidosis.

Interviewer: How reliable are these tests?

Dr. Godara: When patients undergo evaluation for amyloidosis, the blood and the urine testing usually helps indicate whether or not there is any damage that's occurring to the different organs in the body that we would suspect in a patient with amyloidosis. So they only tell us to a certain extent.

Ultimately, patients would require either a tissue biopsy or an organ biopsy to see that amyloid accumulation happening in that organ to have a confirmation of this type of diagnosis.

Interviewer: Many patients find information on the internet when it comes to this disease that can cause anxiety and apprehension. Why is that?

Dr. Godara: I think the answer to that lies in the complexity of the disease. When patients look up amyloidosis, one thing that they might not know at that time is the type of amyloidosis that we are suspecting that they have.

The workup for amyloidosis, the treatment for amyloidosis, and the prognosis of amyloidosis depends a lot on the type of amyloidosis that they have. So the information on the internet might not be very accurate to the fact to the type of amyloidosis that these patients have. And the generalized information can create a lot of confusion and apprehension.

Interviewer: So somebody could find out they have amyloidosis but not exactly know what kind, go to the internet, start doing some research, and then that can be scary place.

Dr. Godara: I think that's correct. When we see patients who are referred to us for amyloidosis, patients have very limited knowledge as to what this disease entails and why this diagnosis is being suspected. So my job for my patients is to explain to them why the suspicion exists, and what do we need to do to identify whether or not they have amyloidosis.

The information that's available for the patients before they have completed the evaluation could be very generalizable and might not be important to that type of amyloidosis that they have.

Interviewer: And let's talk about treatments for the condition. So you have a positive diagnosis, you know what kind it is, you know what it's impacting, I would imagine that the treatments that you would give depend a lot on the same kinds of things we've talked about up until this point.

Dr. Godara: So as there are so many types of amyloidosis that can inflict damage into the body, the treatment basically depends on the type of amyloidosis. So there have been a lot of developments and a lot of exciting work has been done for patients with amyloidosis in the last few years.

So when we see patients with lichen amyloidosis, just last year, we had a treatment that is specifically developed for patients with lichen amyloidosis that was approved by the FDA. This is a combination of four medications together that not only results in eradication of the clone that causes amyloidosis, but also helps improve the heart, kidneys, or any other organs that might have been damaged as a part of this condition.

So patients who have transthyretin amyloidosis have two different types of treatments available for them. One treatment focuses on stabilizing the transthyretin protein and preventing it from turning into amyloidosis. And the other type of treatment targets the liver and prevents it from producing the transthyretin protein, so that ultimately you cut out the source that would be causing amyloidosis.

So there's been a lot of progress and a lot of other new treatments that are in clinical trials for these two types of amyloidosis. For several other types of amyloidosis, we don't have any treatments available yet.

Interviewer: And for those patients, is it just managing the disease best you can, managing the symptoms? What's the strategy?

Dr. Godara: So patients who have types of amyloidosis that we don't have treatments for, our focus remains on the organs that are afflicted from this disease. We try to support the organs that are damaged as a part of amyloidosis, and sometimes these patients will end up receiving a kidney transplant, or a liver transplant, or a heart transplant depending on what type of organ was damaged, irrespective of whether or not we have any treatments available for that type of amyloidosis.

The first and the foremost thing for patients with amyloidosis is to identify these patients at the earliest, because the sooner we take to diagnose this condition, the sooner we can try to reverse this process.

Delays in diagnosis can ultimately hurt the patient, so we have to create awareness at all levels of our healthcare system to identify these patients who might or might not have amyloidosis so that they undergo the appropriate workup and have a confirmation on whether or not they have this condition.

So we need to create awareness not just at the level of the primary care doctor, but also the specialists that our patients see. And at the same time, we also have to increase the awareness about this rare disease with our patients, so that if they have one of the symptoms that we relate with this condition, our patients can come to us and be evaluated for the suspicion.

The one thing that patients with amyloidosis require is a comprehensive evaluation. So when we suspect amyloidosis in a patient, our patients require a multidisciplinary team to not just help identify whether or not they have amyloidosis, but also once the diagnosis has been confirmed, we can focus not just on the cause of what's causing the amyloidosis but also help support the organs that are damaged as a part of this disease.

So at the Amyloidosis Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute, our patients receive care under a team of specialists that includes representation from cardiology, nephrology, and neurology to provide the best possible care that our patients need.