New drugs for treatment of MS reported


November 22, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

Researchers have reported on two experimental drugs in recent weeks that represent potential major advances in treating multiple sclerosis.

The reports follow on the heels of Food and Drug Administration approval last year of Betaseron, the first drug to show progress against the course of the disease.

The reports should give hope to the estimated 300,000 people in the United States who suffer from MS -- the leading cause of non-traumatic disability among people between the ages of 15 and 45. Women should be especially heartened, because of the 10,000 cases diagnosed yearly, women represent twice as many as men.

The two experimental drugs are copolymer-1 and interferon beta-1a. Both reduced the frequency of MS attacks in test cases.

Interferon beta-1a also slowed the rate at which people accumulated permanent disabilities. Both it and Betaseron are based on a natural human protein that appears to protect the body against attacks by its own immune system.

But interferon beta-1a has a benefit over betaseron: it needs to be taken only once a week, whereas Betaseron must be taken every other day.

Copolymer-1 seems to work by stimulating cells that suppress the immune system's attack on its own myelin. It may accomplish this because its structure is similar to that of a myelin protein, thus tricking the body into concentrating its attack on it instead of the actual myelin.

All three drugs have proven beneficial, in varying degrees, for people suffering from relapsing-remitting MS, the form of the disease in which people recover all or partial function after each attack.

Despite the encouraging results with the new treatments, researchers caution that they are not cures, and do not reverse the course of MS.

What has been shown, however, is that these drugs can reduce the number of attacks, and the resulting neurologic decline, thus allowing people with the disease to enjoy a better quality of life for a longer period of time.

MS sufferers lose muscle function -- sometimes slowly, over many years, sometimes much more swiftly.

The disease occurs when the immune system inexplicably attacks the protective myelin sheath around the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. When this happens, no signals pass over the nerves to various parts of the body.

MS patients have a number of symptoms, including headache, dizziness, vertigo, vision problems, balance, incontinence, and, in some cases, paralysis. In its early stages, the disease is difficult to diagnose.

The risk of getting MS is 15 to 20 times higher for first-degree relatives of people with the disease. This may result from inheritance or common exposures.

The average age at which people begin to show signs of MS is 32, and the average duration is 14 years.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is founding director of its Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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