In the United States, approximately 400,000 people are living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Worldwide the number jumps to 2.5 million sufferers. What many don't realize is that geography can play a part in the disease, as the incidence of MS per 100,000 people is twice as high in northern areas above the 37th parallel compared to below that point. Rates rise as the distance from the equator grows.
The most devastating form of the disease is progressive MS, because it attacks the brain and spine, eventually leading to paralysis. Relapsing and remitting MS is a milder form. About half of the patients who have relapsing and remitting MS will ultimately develop the progressive form of the disease. MS is not fatal and most patients who have it die from complications such as pneumonia or infections. There is no cure for MS and treatments are not always effective. There is some hope, however, in the study of a drug used to treat asthma.
Ibudilast, a drug used in Japan to treat asthma has been studied as a possible treatment for MS. New research suggests that the drug, which is taken orally, can slow the brain damage that happens in the later stages of progressive MS.
Robert Fox, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic, was the lead author on the study and he explained in a press release, "What we found is ibudilast treatment was associated with a 48 percent slowing in the progression of brain shrinkage. It cut in half the progression of brain atrophy and brought the rate quite close to what we see in otherwise healthy people."
The only treatment approved for progressive MS is a course of chemotherapy. That protocol comes with risks and side effects that can make a patient feel worse than they do with MS. In the research into ibudilast, 255 patients with progressive MS were studied. Half received the drug, and half received a placebo. All underwent MRI scans, and their progress was followed for two years. The results showed a significant slowing of brain atrophy. Dr. Fox hopes that further trials of the drug will show that it could also be effective in slowing progression of the disease in the body. In the later stages of MS, muscles stop working, there can be a loss of sensation in the arms or legs, and vision disruptions can occur. If ibudilast turns out to slow this progression as well as it did for the brain, it could be a real game-changer for patients.
Dr. Fox said a more extensive trial would be needed to see if the drug can do even more than it's already done, stating, "That is going to require another trial, a much larger trial, to look at whether this drug is truly beneficial on the progression of disability. The hope though is that its benefit in slowing progression of brain atrophy will translate to a slowing in the progression of disability as well."
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