Multiple Sclerosis

23 October 2008

Drug might reverse effects of MS

A drug licensed for use against leukaemia halted and even reversed the effects of multiple sclerosis among patients with MS, according to an early trial.

A drug licensed for use against leukaemia halted and even reversed the effects of multiple sclerosis among patients with MS, according to an early trial reported Thursday by British researchers.

Cambridge University scientists found that the drug, known by its lab name of alemtuzumab, reduced the number of episodes of fatigue and physical impairment among people with MS, while some patients even recovered lost functions.

MS support groups gave the findings a warm welcome, amid caution however that more work was needed before the drug could be authorised to treat the disease.

"The ability of an MS drug to promote brain repair is unprecedented," said Alasdair Coles, one of the study's leaders. "We are witnessing a drug which, if given early enough, might effectively stop the advancement of the disease and also restore lost function by promoting repair of the damaged brain tissue."

MS affects millions of people worldwide, including almost 100 000 in Britain and 400 000 in the United States. It is caused by the body's immune system attacking nerve fibres in the central nervous system. There is no cure, and few effective treatments. The MS Society, Britain's largest support charity for those affected by the condition, said it was "delighted" at the trial's results.

Findings give hope to MS sufferers
"This is the first drug that has shown the potential to halt and even reverse the debilitating effects of MS, and this news will rightly bring hope to people living with the condition day in, day out," head of research Lee Dunster said.

Paul Matthews, a professor of clinical neuroscience at Imperial College London, described the trial as "compelling" but warned of possible side-effects.

"Alemtuzumab was associated with severe adverse events in a small proportion of the patients, suggesting that it would be unsuitable for any patient except those with very aggressive forms of the disease," he told the BBC.

How the trial was done
In the trial, 334 patients diagnosed with early-stage relapsing-remitting MS who had not previously been treated were given either alemtuzumab or interferon beta-1a, one of the most effective licensed therapies. After three years, alemtuzumab was found to reduce the number of attacks the patients suffered by 74% over the other treatment and reduce the risk of sustained accumulation of disability by 71% over interferon beta-1a.

Many individuals who took alemtuzumab also recovered some of their lost functions, becoming less disabled, while the disabilities of the other patients worsened, according to the study, which is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Alemtuzumab was first developed in Cambridge and has been licensed for the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. The new research comprised a so-called "Phase II" trial. New drugs typically undergo a long, three-phase process on ever-larger groups of volunteers to see that they are both safe and effective.

Some prototype treatments fall at the final hurdle, when assessments among a larger group of patients reveal unexpected side-effects.

The principal researcher on the Cambridge University project, Alastair Compston, said: "We are hopeful that the Phase III trials will confirm that it can both stabilise and allow some recovery of what had previously been assumed to be irreversible disabilities. – (Sapa, October 2008)

Read more:
Breakthrough diagnostic tech
MS risk higher further from equator


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.