A pill that effectively treats the most common form of multiple sclerosis (MS) could be available for the first time, it has been disclosed.
Currently, sufferers have to receive regular injections to control their condition.
The new treatment, cladribine, is a tablet form of a drug used to treat certain types of leukaemia.
Results of a trial presented in the US reveal that taking just a few cladribine pills a year could reduce the chances of MS patients relapsing by more than 50 per cent.
The treatment also had few side-effects, unlike the injected version of the same drug given to cancer patients which can lead to anaemia, easy bruising and bleeding, and infections.
A spokesman for the MS Society charity described the research as a “huge step forward”.
An application to license the treatment for use in the UK is expected imminently.
Whether or not NHS patients have access to it depends on the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), which judges the cost-effectiveness of new treatments.
But the fact cladribine is already used for another condition could speed up its availability. Around 85,000 people in the UK suffer from MS, a disabling disease caused by the body’s immune system attacking nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
MS destroys the insulation around nerve fibres, made from a fatty material called myelin, which prevents nerve messages becoming scrambled and helps them transmit quickly.
Loss of myelin can lead to problems with vision, muscle control, balance and memory. Symptoms can range from a mild tingling sensation to complete paralysis.
In the trial, cladribine — marketed for leukaemia patients under the trade name Leustat — was used to treat “relapsing-remitting” MS, the most common form of the disease suffered by 65 per cent of patients. It is characterised by alternating periods during which symptoms come and go.
Around five therapies are available for relapsing-remitting MS, all of which have to be injected. The frequency of injections varies between daily and weekly.
The new study involved more than 1,300 MS sufferers whose progress was followed for nearly two years. Patients were randomly given two or four treatment courses of cladribine tablets per year, or an inactive placebo.
Each course consisted of a daily pill for four or five days, adding up to eight to 20 days of treatment each year. Patients were monitored using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans which can reveal sites of nerve damage.
Those on cladribine were more than 55 per cent less likely to suffer a relapse than those on the placebo and were 30 per cent less likely to suffer worsening disability due to MS.
In 80 per cent of cases, patients were relapse-free over the whole period of the trial, compared with 61 per cent of those taking the placebo.
Scans showed a “highly significant” reduction in progressive brain damage caused by the illness. Few serious side-effects were reported, the worst being an increased susceptibility to infection.
Professor Gavin Giovannoni, from Queen Mary University of London, the trial’s chief researcher, said: “These results are really exciting. MS can be a very debilitating illness and at the moment treatment options remain limited. An effective oral therapy will have a major impact.”
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