Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system. Over time, it destroys myelin, which serves as a protective nerve coating and enables faster transmission of nerve signals. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 2.3 million people have this disease worldwide. Even worse, there is no cure.
Medications for people with MS are designed to ease symptoms, improve function, and decrease the severity of relapses. Recent advancements in medical research have made it possible to develop more effective treatments.
There are about a dozen ongoing MS-related studies in a given year. Each study brings scientists and doctors one step closer to understanding MS. Studies can cover:
- what causes MS
- who gets it
- potential cures
Researchers are coming ever closer to finding answers. Keep reading to explore the newest drugs and potential future treatments.
In March 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug Tecfidera (generically known as dimethyl fumarate). It’s the third oral medicine to be approved for MS treatment. Clinical research showed that patients who took the medicine once daily experienced fewer relapses than patients who took a placebo.
Side effects can include:
- decreased white blood cell count (weaker immune system)
- flushing (especially face or upper body)
- nausea or vomiting
- difficulty with urination
Doctors must monitor the white blood cell count closely in patients taking Tecfidera in order to prevent infections.
Lemtrada (generic version is alemtuzumab) was a drug originally developed to treat leukemia. During trials, the once-a-year injections showed that it is also effective in slowing MS-related disability. It also reduced the incidence of MS relapses. In fact, according to The Lancet, 80 percent of patients who received a second dose one year after their initial injections did not require additional treatments. The FDA approved this medication for MS treatment in 2014.
Other MS medicines are still being studied. These include:
Most MS medications are given by injection or intravenous infusion. Only three are available as oral medication. These include Aubagio (teriflunomide), Gilenya (fingolimod), and Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate). Laquinimod, a once-daily medicine, could become the fourth oral medication prescribed for MS. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the drug is efficient at significantly reducing relapse rates. It may also reduce both acute (short-term) and chronic (permanent) disability. This includes brain atrophy.
Research reported in The Lancet suggests this injection, trade name Zenapax, may be effective at reducing new or enlarged brain lesions. The study found significant improvement after just one year of treatment. People who received the injections also had lower recurrences of relapse than people taking a placebo. Daclizumab is currently used to prevent organ transplant rejection.
Patients in long-term clinical studies of this other injectable drug show a reduced occurrence rate of brain lesions. Long-term follow-up with these patients shows that the medicine is effective up to 18 months after a dose. Research developments also suggest that patients who receive as many as four injections of the medication don’t exhibit signs of disease progression, based on follow-up MRI studies.
The Future in Research
There are certain factors that may increase your risk for MS, including:
- family history of MS
- past infections (such as mononucleosis)
- immune system problems
- vitamin deficiencies (especially vitamin D)
- individuals of Northern European descent
The goal of identifying the causes of MS can help lead to more effective cures before disability occurs.
Despite advances in medicine that seem to slow and possibly halt the progression of MS, no medicine is able to reverse the damage. Medications can’t fully restore a person’s nervous system. Once myelin is destroyed, it can’t be regenerated. Still, research continues to see whether there is any way to repair the damage (also known as remyelination). So far, researchers have used stem cells to see if they may hold promise for repairing MS damage. Other research has focused on regeneration of the myelin sheath through drug therapy.
As stated earlier, both the cause and cure for MS remain unknown. The best way to fight the disease is to prevent its progression. While this in itself can seem daunting, past research continues to produce more effective treatments. The goal is to eventually discover a permanent cure. Ask your doctor if you’re interested in participating in clinical trials. Doing so may help you — and others.