Beth Zastawny Examines How Close We Are To a Cure for Multiple Sclerosis

Jun 18, 2020 by

Beth Zastawny
Beth Zastawny

There have been some reported potential cures for multiple sclerosis (MS) over the years. While some of them generated a lot of initial excitement, they also failed in-depth testing.

The truth is that while science inches closer to finding a treatment that completely halts the disease, it’s not quite there yet, says Beth Zastawny of Ludlow, Massachusetts, who lives with MS and is a supporter and advocate for ongoing research.

However, the progress that the medical community is making to control the disease that affects about a million Americans is encouraging. New disease-modifying therapies are showing promise, and there are currently a number of these therapies approved by the FDA. In the meantime, researchers continue to focus on possible causes of MS to drive newer treatments and even prevent the disease down the road.

New Therapies Show Positive Results

Disease modifying therapies, also known at DMTs, are one of the newest weapons doctors have to combat MS. While they haven’t yet wiped out signs of the disease, they have been proven to reduce the number of relapses a patient has, as well as how severe the symptoms can be, explains Beth Zastawny.

One of the therapies that has created a lot of buzz in recent years is Lemtrada, which is administered to patients that are not responding well to other DMTs. The extensive therapy requires an initial weeklong hospital stay, during which time the treatment is delivered via infusion that takes several hours. The process is repeated a year later. MS is considered to be an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune systems attacks otherwise healthy cells and tissues. The principle behind Lemtrada is that it destroys immune cells that have been shown to break down myelin, a protective coating on nerves. This is the process that can cause blocked nerve signals leading to physical and cognitive decline in MS patients. The idea is that the immune cells that take the place of the old ones will be healthy and will act normally. So far, studies have shown that it has positive impacts on relapse rates and other important markers.

Meanwhile, new DMTs are available including Ozanimod (Zeposia), which was approved by the FDA in March 2020. It is designed to treat different types of MS including Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), active Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS), and Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS).

Experimental Medications in the Research Pipeline

While some DMTs are having clinical success, research continues to find even more effective therapies that could slow disability related to the disease, explains Beth Zastawny.

For example, one of the experimental therapies is called ibudilast, and a phase II clinical trial shows promise for those with progressive MS. The study involved patients with primary or secondary progressive MS, with some receiving the oral treatment and others receiving a placebo for a period of 96 weeks.

Of the entire study group of 255 patients, those who took the drug showed less brain tissue loss (brain atrophy) than those who took the placebo. However, there are some side effects noted for ibudilast, which is currently being used in Japan and Korea to treat asthma and vertigo following a stroke. A phase III trial was planned to ensure safety and effectiveness for patients with SPMS. There are currently no approved medications for SPMS without relapses over a long-term basis.

Gene and Stem Cell Research Continues, says Beth Zastawny

Aside from medications, the medical community is making advances in other areas that could prove beneficial for MS patients, explains Beth Zastawny.

For example, scientists are currently narrowing down genetic variants that are associated with the disease (there are more than 200 already identified), and have recently identified four new genes that might be linked to MS. The hope is that this area of research will be used to not only treat but also possibly predict and prevent the disease.

Meanwhile, HSCT (Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation) has been shown during trials to prevent relapses for five years following treatment — but there are risks as this therapy also involves chemotherapy.

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