To try to develop kinder and more effective treatments for MS, Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl, director of the UCLA multiple sclerosis program, is reexamining the natural history of the disease.
Women get MS three to four times more often than men, and they tend to get it at a younger age, in their late 20s rather than their early 40s. It has also long been known that pregnant women with MS exhibit an 80% drop in their symptoms during their third trimester -- a larger drop than the 60% reduction seen with natalizumab (Tysabri).
In the late 1990s, Voskuhl discovered that the female sex hormone, estriol, could suppress MS-like symptoms in a mouse model of the disease. Estriol is used in Europe for hormone replacement therapy in post-menopausal women and is considered one of the safest estrogen hormones. In 2003, Voskuhl ran a pilot study giving estriol to 10 nonpregnant women with MS and found that the women showed an 80% decline in inflammatory lesions in their brain.
Because drug companies are rarely interested in funding trials for compounds not protected by patents, Voskuhl has spent five years piecing together funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Southern California Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to run a two-year trial at several sites with about 130 patients. She is still enlisting patients for this trial, in which patients taking the approved therapeutic Copaxone (glatiramer acetate) are compared with those taking Copaxone and estriol. (Call  825-7313 to enroll).
“Estriol would be given very early, it would be very safe, and it would be a pill,” she says. “But it’s not proven -- so we’ll work on it.”
-- Brendan Borrell