A Taiwanese study shows that people using fenoterol for asthma have a reduced risk of developing MS.

A common drug used to treat asthma may protect against multiple sclerosis (MS), according to new research findings. Fenoterol, a bronchodilator used to open the airways, may hold the key.

A little more than a decade ago, scientists believed that allergies and autoimmune diseases were completely unconnected. But in 2003, researchers at HaEmek Medical Center in Israel published a paper suggesting that asthma, a disease characterized by allergic responses, can teach us much about autoimmune diseases in which T-cells also play a key role.

In fact, when both asthma and autoimmune conditions appear in the same patients, it may show that these immune-system disorders share a common mechanism of action, the study authors suggest.

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Although scientists aren’t sure what biological processes asthma and MS share, they are beginning to see some connections. For one thing, cytokines (inflammatory molecules secreted by T-cells in the immune system) are involved in both MS and asthma. And drugs that inhibit cytokines in people with asthma appear to be beneficial for people with MS.

In a 2010 study, researchers at Harvard Medical School explored the use of albuterol, a drug commonly used to treat asthma, as an add-on therapy for patients with MS. They paired it with the disease-modifying therapy (DMT) glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) to see if the two drugs together were more effective at reducing relapses or preventing disability.

The results were promising and showed that those taking the “combi therapy” did better than those taking just Copaxone. There was less disease activity and less brain tissue loss in the group taking both drugs.

The idea of trying certain MS drugs together, in the hopes of creating a more potent cocktail, is not new. Over the past decade there have been other trials pairing up DMTs, but exploring the use of an asthma medication with an MS drug was a novel approach.

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But what if taking asthma drugs could actually keep people from developing MS?

Researchers in Taiwan recently sifted through the records of 578 people who were newly diagnosed with MS and had severely disabling disease between 2002 and 2008. Next, they compared these records with those of 2,890 other people who were matched by gender, age, location, and type of insurance plan. Within the healthy control group, researchers identified those who took fenoterol for asthma.

When the scientists compared these groups, they found that those who took fenoterol were less likely to be diagnosed with MS.

Because the Taiwanese study was based on records, there was no hands-on research conducted. It was merely a statistical observation. Although the numbers show that those taking fenoterol were less likely to have MS, the reason why is still a mystery.

What is important is that scientists are learning more about what makes MS and other inflammatory conditions tick. Unlocking these secrets could one day lead not just to new treatments for those who already have the disease, but also to medications for those who are at high risk for MS.

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