People living with late-stage multiple sclerosis (MS) could have their condition significantly improved by taking statins, doctors have found, in a “surprise” discovery which could be of major benefit to thousands of sufferers.
In results described as “very exciting” by the leading MS charity, researchers found that taking a large daily dose of statins, which are commonly used to reduce the risk of heart disease, could also slow the progression of MS in its later, more debilitating phase.
Patients who took the drugs over two years experienced less severe symptoms of disability, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans revealed that their brains shrank at a slower rate than patients who took a placebo.
MS, a disease of the brain and nervous system which causes problems with movement, balance and vision, affects around 100,000 people in the UK. While it can be managed in its early phase, when patients often experience days, weeks or even months without symptoms, most sufferers go on to develop secondary progressive MS within 15 years of diagnosis, which is more severe and largely untreatable.
While the disease is not fatal, there is no cure and it can lead to people becoming severely disabled and vulnerable to complications. The average life expectancy of people with MS is around 10 years lower than the population at large. Women are three times more likely to have the disease as men.
The study, published in The Lancet medical journal today which was conducted at Imperial College London, is the culmination of many years of research in collaboration with University College London (UCL), into the potential benefits of statins as a treatment for autoimmune diseases.
Dr Richard Nicholas, of Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine, who coauthored the paper with Dr Jeremy Chataway, said that their findings were particularly promising, as statins are already cheap and widely used, and could, in theory, be rolled out as an MS treatment quickly and with widespread impact.
“At the moment, we don’t have anything that can stop patients from becoming more disabled once MS reaches the progressive phase,” he said. “Discovering that statins can help slow that deterioration is quite a surprise.”
In late stage MS the brain shrinks by around 0.6 per cent per year, said Dr Chataway, who is now at UCL. In patients who received statins, that shrinkage was reduced to 0.3 per cent a year – a 43 per cent reduction compared to the placebo group.
Dr Chataway urged caution on the brain imaging findings, which he said would did not necessarily translate to clinical benefit, but agreed that the findings were “promising”.
Patients on statins also scored better on tests of disability: both self-reported, and in assessments by doctors.
Large phase-three clinical trials were now required to confirm the findings of the study, which only looked at 140 MS patients, the researchers said.
“Scientists have worked for years to find a potential treatment that could help people, and now, finally, one has been found,” said Dr Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society. “This is very exciting news.”
Professor John Greenwood, of UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology, who has led research efforts into statins said: “After nearly two decades of research, it is immensely gratifying to see this work progress into the clinic to deliver benefits to patients.”