Two multiple sclerosis drugs may add to arsenal against disease -- eventually

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the world of “promising” multiple sclerosis drugs, it’s been quite a week. Two more experimental drugs -- both in pill form, not injected -- are joining the race of new treatments to slow the disease. 

A study of multiple sclerosis patients who took the drug laquinimod over two years had 23% fewer relapses -- an attack of new symptoms or worsening of old ones -- compared with patients who took a sugar pill. The group that received the drug also had a 36% reduction in disability progression and a 33% reduction in brain atrophy. Results from the clinical trial, which tracked 1,106 people with the most common form of the disease, were released late Monday at an American Academy of Neurology meeting in Honolulu. 

But laquinimod isn't the MS drug of the year, or even the drug of the week. Similar results also came Monday from the makers of another drug designed to do, well, pretty much the same thing. Makers of BG-12, a chemical compound initially designed to treat psoriasis, announced that their two-year trial of 1,200 people achieved statistically significant reductions in relapses, also compared with use of a placebo.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the brain and spinal cord, so drugs to treat the disease usually try to suppress the immune system. Laquinimod likely works this way too, though the exact mechanism is unclear. BG-12 protects nerve cells from oxidative stress. 

Two new choices are better than one, of course. But hold up. Both drugs were compared against fake treatments, not other treatments to slow MS. One might hope for more dramatic results compared with use of a placebo. Further, the results of both studies were simply announced publicly; they’ve yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. And of course, each study was funded by each drug's maker. That’s to be expected -- who else would be funding such trials? -- but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

New drugs would have a large group of potential users -- multiple sclerosis affects as many as 400,000 people in the U.S.

People with the disease can have disabilities all over the body, but common ones are fatigue, numbness, sexual problems and difficulty walking.

Because there is no cure for MS, most patients can simply hope to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease by avoiding relapses. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society lists eight drugs the FDA has approved to reduce the disease activity.

Until recently, most treatments for MS were injected, but fear of needles is one reason patients don’t stick to a treatment. The first drug in pill form, which reduces the penetration of immune cells into the brain, was approved in September 2010.

No one's touting either of the new experimental drugs as a cure either -- simply a way to slow the disease. Considering the grim options, it's little wonder people get their hopes up, but at least the new drugs are in pill form. 

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