A drug recently approved to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) also may help some people in the early stages of the disease to reverse some physical disability, new research suggests.
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The study found that the early-stage patients who took the drug, which is called alemtuzumab, were more likely to see an improvement in their neurologic function compared to patients who did not receive the drug.
Past clinical trials of the drug have focused on whether it slowed the progression of disability in patients with moderate to advanced MS.
For two years, researchers studied about 600 people in the early stages of MS called the relapsing-remitting stage. These patients had not had success with at least one other MS drug. Relapsing-remitting MS is when symptoms suddenly worsen and then go into remission.
Participants were either given the newer therapy or a standard MS treatment called interferon beta-1A.
Almost 28 percent of those who took alemtuzumab showed improvement on a disability test. The alemtuzumab group also was 2.5 times more likely to improve on a thinking skills assessment. They also were more than twice as likely to improve on certain movement tests.
Improved neurological function
Alemtuzumab is a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, says neurologist Robert Fox, MD. The study reinforces what scientists have previously found about drugs that reduce the inflammation caused by MS, he says.
“This is exciting because it shows that, particularly in the early stages of MS, we can stop active inflammation with very strong anti-inflammatory therapies. This then allows the brain and the spinal cord to recover and improve function,” Dr. Fox says. He did not take part in the study.
“As a result, patients can see an improvement in symptoms, despite still having MS,” he says.
An important aspect of the study is that it focused on patients in the earlier stages of MS, Dr. Fox says.
“One of the big unmet needs in MS treatment is for patients with later forms of MS, a form that we call progressive MS,”Dr. Fox says.
“Right now we don’t have therapies that have been shown to either slow the progression of progressive MS or, as this study looked at, to help improve the function. And so, helping to identify therapies for progressive MS is really an unmet need in the MS field.”
Because it can cause serious side effects, alemtuzumab is generally used to treat patients who have not responded well to other MS drugs. The study was a phase 3, or licensing trial, of a drug that the FDA recently approved for relapsing-remitting MS.
More research is needed to see whether people experience improvement in their symptoms over longer periods of time of taking the drug, Dr. Fox says.
MS is a central nervous system disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. Nearly 350,000 people in the United States have MS.
Infection-fighting white blood cells enter the nervous system, causing damage by stripping off the myelin sheath that protects the nerves. When this happens, the nerves cannot conduct impulses as well as they should.
This causes symptoms, which commonly include numbness or tingling in various parts of the body, weakness of one or more parts of the body, walking difficulties, dizziness, fatigue, visual blurring, and occasionally double vision.