Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological inflammatory disease where the protective myelin sheaths of neurons in the brain become damaged, and nerve impulses cannot be coordinated and processed properly. The reason for this is not yet known, but theories suggest that MS is in fact an autoimmune disorder, while some researchers suggest genetic predisposition could be to blame as well. Being a progressive disease, MS gets worse with time with loss of sensitivity, gradual brain damage, chronic pain, fatigue, loss of sense of balance and difficulty in moving.
According to a recent press release by the Imperial College London (ICL) MS affects around 2.3 million people worldwide. Most of these cases are recurrent, which keep coming and going. Around 15% of these cases are diagnosed as secondary progressive MS. There is no proven, effective treatment for this condition as of yet, despite two decades of research.
A report published in the March 2014 edition of the online journal Lancet has claimed that researchers at the University College of London (UCL) led by Dr. Jeremy Chataway, along with Prof. John Greenwood from the Department of Opthalmology, have suggested the use of cholesterol-lowering compound statins as a potential therapeutic agent to treat MS. Dr. Richard Nicholas from ICL has also contributed to this study.
This study consisted of 140 patients with cases of secondary progressive MS, who were given a dose of 80mg of simvastatin — the most commonly used statin — for a period of two years. The reduction in the amount of brain damage was chosen to be the marker for measuring the efficacy of the study. Normally, by each passing year, the brain degrades by 0.6% owing to the progressive nature of MS. According to Dr. J.Chataway, “In the progressive stage of MS the brain shrinks by about 0.6% a year. Our main measure of success was to reduce the rate of brain atrophy.”
Apart from their cholesterol-lowering abilities, statins have been known over the years for their ability to treat cardiovascular conditions. Since then, a great deal of research has gone into exploring its anti-inflammatory and neuromodulatory properties. Laboratory studies have reported that statins help in the synthesis of Nitrous Oxide (NO), which forms various compounds in the body and initiates a cascade of anti-inflammatory pathways. The main mode of action includes macromolecular leaks, activation of vascular circulation and modulation of the adhesion of leukocytes in the blood vessels that helps in reducing inflammation.
The results of this study when analyzed via MRI scans showed a net reduction in brain damage by 43% with the amount of brain atrophy, reducing to 0.3% from the normal 0.6%. However, this is just the beginning for patients and more clinical trials need to be conducted in order to check for the significance of the use of statins. In terms of research, it is a positive start and has the potential to be a game-changer.
Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, said: “There are no treatments that can stop the condition from worsening in people with progressive MS. Scientists have worked for years to find a potential treatment that could help people, and now, finally, one has been found. This is very exciting news.Further, larger clinical trials are now absolutely crucial to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this treatment, but for now, people with MS should be really encouraged by these results.”
“At the moment, we don’t have anything that can stop patients from becoming more disabled once MS reaches the progressive phase,” said Dr Richard Nicholas, co-author of the study from the Department of Medicine at Imperial. “Discovering that statins can help slow that deterioration is quite a surprise. This is a promising finding, particularly as statins are already cheap and widely used.We need to do a bigger study with more patients, possibly starting in the earlier phase of the disease, to fully establish how effective it is,” he added.
This study was funded by J.P Moulton Foundation, Berkeley Foundation, Multiple Sclerosis Trials Collaboration, Rosetrees Trust and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).