A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests a drug developed to treat leukemia was significantly more effective than standard therapy in treating early multiple sclerosis.
Patients with early relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form of the disease, who were treated with the drug, alemtuzumab had less relapses and indication of MS progression than those patients treated with the standard approved treatment, interferon beta-1a.
The study also suggests the drug may enable repair of previous damage. However, researchers warn their research is still in the early stages and the treatment can produce potentially serious adverse side effects, including thyroid complications.
About 400,000 people in the United States have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disorder in which the nerves of the eye, brain and spinal cord lose myelin, a protective coating that facilitates the transmission of electrical impulses.
Alemtuzumab – known as a monoclonal antibody - was first created by Cambridge University researchers in the late 1970s as treatment for leukemia. It works by killing off cancerous white cells of the immune system.
For the study, researchers enrolled more than 300 patients with relapsing-remitting MS, which had never been treated with MS drugs.
The patients were put in two groups - nearly a third was treated with standard therapy of interferon beta-1a injections, three times a week. And the second group of patients was treated with alemtuzumab, given by infusion in once-a-year cycles.
The first cycle was four-hour infusions given daily over five days. After twelve months, most of the patients were given a second, three-day course of the drug.
Researchers found alemtuzumab reduced the number of attacks of disease by 74 percent more than standard interferon-beta 1a therapy.
Alemtuzumab also reduces the risk of sustained accumulation of disability by 71 percent compared to standard therapy.
Patients who received the drug were also less disabled after three years than at the beginning of the trial. In comparison, patients given beta-interferon showed signs of the disease progressively worsening.
Researchers say the findings suggest the drug may allow damaged brain tissue to repair itself. However, before the drug can be considered for widespread use, more research is needed to confirm the effects.
“Alemtuzumab is the most promising experimental drug for treating MS,” said lead researcher Professor Alastair Compston. “We are hopeful that more clinical trials will confirm that the drug can both stabilize and reverse what was once thought to be irreversible damage.”
During the trial, 20 percent of the patients treated with alemtuzumab developed under or over-active thyroid.
A small number of patients developed low platelet count, making them vulnerable to bleeding and in one case led to a fatality. Researchers stress, this complication can be treated easily if detected early enough.
“This is the first drug that has shown the ability to halt and possibly reverse the debilitating effects of MS. This news should bring hope to those patients living with the condition day in, day out,” said Lee Dunster, head of research at the MS Society. #