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Biologics are ‘galaxy changers’

The Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto has launched two new online courses to help patients, caregivers, and health care professionals enrich their knowledge and skills related to the use of biosimilar biologic medications.

Developed by leading experts from across Canada and hosted by the edX online learning platform, these courses are free and available for anyone to enroll. There is also a paid professional certificate stream that is fully accredited by professional accreditation groups for nursing, pharmacy, and medicine in Canada.

“Biologics are powerful and effective medications that have been very successful in stopping the progression of disease and have been used to treat serious illnesses like cancer, forms of autoimmune arthritis, and inflammatory digestive disorders, with very impressive outcomes,” says Kathy Vu, assistant professor, teaching stream at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. 

Unlike the chemical compounds that makeup conventional medications, biologics are a class of drugs created from a complex protein molecule made inside a living cell or system. This approach allows for a more targeted treatment of specific diseases and has been shown to increase the beneficial effect to the person taking the medication. “Now we are targeting selective receptors and cells that are contributing to the disease in question and have achieved tremendous success treating at this fundamental level that just wasn’t possible before,” says Vu who specializes in oncology. 

As patents on originator biologic medications expire, biosimilar biologic medications have entered the market as more cost-effective treatment options. Specifically, a biosimilar is a biologic medication that is demonstrated to be highly similar to the originator biologic, has similar effectiveness and safety, and has been approved for sale by Health Canada. Currently, 52 biosimilar biologics are approved for chronic diseases, including inflammatory arthritis, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis. 

Most provinces and territories in Canada, including British Columbia and Alberta, have introduced switching policies to expand access to the use of biosimilar medications. Most recently, Ontario announced a switching policy that went into effect at the end of March 2023 for people on provincial drug plans. The new online courses were developed in part to help patients, caregivers and health care professionals better understand biosimilar biologic medications, how they are approved, taken or administered and monitored. “As more biosimilars enter the market and clinical settings, there is a need for consistent and reliable information to help people switching from originator biologics to biosimilars across therapeutic areas,” says Vu. “These edX courses will help people who are currently using originator or biosimilar biologic medications get access to comprehensive information they need to feel more informed about their treatment and be active participants in their care.”

Biologics are ‘galaxy changers’

Cheryl Koehn was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis over 30 years ago. A devoted athlete, she struggled with pain and mobility after her diagnosis and received only minimum improvements from treatment options available at that time. She learned about the potential of biologic medications and, after researching and discussing with her health provider, decided to begin taking the newer medication. “We hadn’t seen any new drug development for my disease in roughly 60 years and the best we could hope for pre-biologic was to tamp down the cascade that happens when the immune system goes off. So, this was an important opportunity to consider.” Koehn recalls that only one day after receiving her first dose of a biologic medication, she was able to hold hands with her husband for the first time since their relationship began three years earlier. “For people who respond well to these medications, these aren’t just game changers, they are galaxy changers,” she says. 

Koehn is also founder and president of Arthritis Consumer Experts, a national organization that provides free, science-based information and education programs to people with arthritis. As a patient and patient advocate and health educator Cheryl participated in the creation of the online course and co-led the development of the module focused on patient and health provider communication. 

“It was important that patient perspectives and experiences be central to developing the courses. People with lived experience of using biosimilar medications to treat illness like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis directly contributed to the content and modules,” says Vu. 

The module helps patients prepare questions for their care provider and even gives “real-life” examples of how to ask questions through role play. It also provides additional resources so people can search safely for information online. “Health care isn’t the same anymore. There is a different dynamic and we are living in a world with modern patients, and we owe it to ourselves to step up and create something that allows people to function in today’s healthcare system as a modern patient,” says Koehn.

For Koehn, biosimilars offer taxpayers, governments, and patients more affordable and sustainable treatment options. “It might not be dinner table conversation but biosimilars matter to the people they affect,” says Koehn. “And that is a growing number of people who deserve to have information available free and consumable at their own pace. It’s just the right way to do it.”


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