New drugs may ease suffering of MS patients

HOPES have been raised of the first oral pills for patients with multiple sclerosis being made available within two years.

People with MS, for which there is no cure, have to undergo regular injections to combat the debilitating effects of the disease. However, trials of oral treatments have shown promising results, significantly improving the symptoms of patients.

Scotland has one of the highest rates of MS in the world and campaigners yesterday described the development as "great news".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Two medicines are now going head to head in the race to be the world's first oral treatment for MS. They work in different ways, but both dampen the immune response that causes MS-related nerve damage.

One of the drugs, fingolimod, is a once-a-day treatment made by pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The other, cladribine, is produced by the German drug company Merck, and has longer lasting effects. A total of 20 to 40 tablets are taken over the course of a year.

The results of the clinical studies of both drugs were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Each of the treatments appeared to be similarly effective at reducing relapse rates for patients with the most common form of "intermittent" MS, and holding back progression of the disease.

Patients taking cladribine were up to 58 per cent less likely to suffer a relapse than those given a "dummy" placebo pill.

Patients treated with fingolimod and compared with those given a placebo experienced a reduction in relapse rate of 54 to 60 per cent.

Both drugs cut the chances of progressing to a worse form of the disease by about a third, and neither produced significant side- effects. They are said to be more effective than expensive "disease modifying" MS drugs such as beta interferon and glatiramer acetate, which have to be injected.

The drugs are expected to be available by the end of 2011. But they would still have to get approval to see if they would be cost-effective to be used by the NHS.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The MS Society said it would be lobbying for the drugs to reach patients in the UK.

Doug Brown, the charity's biomedical research manager, said: "This is great news for people with MS and signifies a shifting tide in the treatment of the condition.

"Availability of oral therapies will give people greater choice, and being able to take a tablet instead of unpleasant injections will come as a welcome relief.

"The evidence is now there and we will be working with the relevant authorities to make sure those who will benefit can get access."

Cladribine is currently used in an injected form to treat certain types of leukaemia, which may speed up its availability as it will already have passed various tests.

Professor Gavin Giovanonni, from Queen Mary University of London, who led the cladribine trial involving more than 1,300 MS patients, said: "The introduction of an oral therapy, particularly one that has no short-term side-effects and is as easy to use as oral cladribine, will have a major impact on the treatment of MS.

"However, the use of this drug as a first-line therapy will have to be weighed up against the potential long-term risks, which have yet to be defined."