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Leukemia Drug May Also Fight Multiple Sclerosis

October 23, 2008

A drug developed for patients with leukemia also appears to regenerate brain cells and reverse the effects of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, British researchers said on Wednesday.

Bayer AG and Genzyme Corp’s alemtuzumab, marketed under the brand name Campath, showed long-term improvement in disability in a three-year study, said Alasdair Cole, a neurologist at the University of Cambridge.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system damages the central nervous system.

“This is the first drug that has shown that people’s disability at the end of a period of time has actually improved,” Cole, who helped lead the study, said. “That is really encouraging for people with the disease.”

The study compared alemtuzumab to Rebif in 300 men and women with early stage MS, marked by flare-ups of numbness, vision loss and other problems that can last weeks or months.

The number of attacks were reduced by 74 percent in patients using Campath, compared to a 71 percent reduction of risk of disability among patients using Rebif.

Most notable, after three years people on the experimental drug showed better coordination, walked more quickly and had less brain tissue damage.

“The most remarkable thing is if you look at the disability of all the patients at the end of the treatment, the people on the standard treatment were more disabled,” Cole said.

“The patients on alemtuzumab have an increase in brain volume, which means the brain is repairing itself.”

The researchers did not compare the drug directly to Tysabri but based on existing data said they believe alemtuzumab is a more effective and safer treatment.

Tysabri is widely considered the most effective MS drug on the market, but its use has been crimped due to safety concerns.

Campath was first used in humans in the early 1980s to treat a form of leukemia. It is a monoclonal antibody, a lab-engineered immune system protein that attacks specific targets — in this case white blood cells that cause damage to the myelin sheath around nerves.

Cole said the drug, about to go into final Phase III clinical trials, could hit the market in four years and could be a candidate for fast-track treatment from regulators.

“Whether or not alemtuzumab itself ends up on the market, this study will still be a landmark study showing you can improve the disability of people with multiple sclerosis if you treat it early enough and aggressively.”

“The point to me is we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We are in a new era and we can reverse disability.”

Multiple sclerosis affects 2.5 million people globally and can cause symptoms ranging from vague tingling to blindness and paralysis.

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