European study shows benefit of early MS treatment


Clinical trial: Multiple sclerosis drug has licence extended

Multiple sclerosis (MS) should be treated as early as possible to improve patient outcome, a European study has found. The Benefit clinical trial showed that early treatment with the existing MS drug interferon-beta1b (Betaferon) reduced further attacks and slowed progression of the disease.

Following the two-year trial, interferon-beta1b has now had its European licence extended to treat patients following the first attack that suggests MS, an inflammatory condition of the brain and spinal cord that affects around 6,000 people in Ireland. Around 10,000 people are diagnosed in Europe each year.

The Benefit study provided an evidence base for treating patients as early as possible, said Dr Orla Hardiman, a consultant neurologist at Beaumont Hospital, welcoming the results.

"It has been practice to initiate treatment after the second [ MS] attack. But more recent studies would suggest that there is a lot of disease activity going on under the radar, and that if we treat earlier maybe we can reduce that amount of disease and improve outcome, said Dr Hardiman.

"This study has provided further evidence to support that view that we should be treating as early as we possibly can," she said.

According to Dr Hardiman, an initial attack happens when one part of the nervous system becomes inflamed and stops functioning well. Common symptoms affect vision, balance, sensation, co-ordination or power in the first instance.

Following MRI scans to assess the activity of the disease, diagnosis involved counselling and discussion around treatment options, she said.

There is no cure for MS, but interferon is one of a number of existing drug treatments that can manage symptoms. It targets the immune system and can help stave off relapses or attacks.

"Interferon tweaks the immune system and reduces the amount of harmful white cells and antibodies and other chemicals that are likely to cause damage within the central nervous system when you have MS," said Dr Hardiman.

She added that around 40 per cent of people with MS were in the relapsing-remitting phase of the disease and would be suitable for treatment with interferon, but that some do better than others on the drug.

"We don't know who is going to do well on it unless we try," she said. "[ The Benefit trial] provides an evidence base of confirmation of something that we knew from other studies before and the product is now licensed to treat at the earliest possible point after diagnosis."

Last week the European Commission cleared another MS drug, Tysabri, to be remarketed in Europe.

Sales of Tysabri, which is manufactured by Elan, had been suspended last year when three patients taking the drug contracted a rare brain disease.

Tysabri, which has also been shown to reduce relapses and slow the disease's progression, should be available in Ireland by next month.

The MS Society of Ireland welcomed the news of improved treatment options. "As there is yet no cure for MS, any drug that relieves symptoms and/or slows down progression is welcome by those of us living with MS," said the society's chairwoman, Louise Wardell.