DescriptionAn in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of MS.
Corticosteroids (commonly called steroids) are mainstay treatments for acute relapses in the relapsing-remitting patient. High-dose methylprednisolone given intravenously (IVMP) is typically administered for major relapse, often followed by oral prednisone for a few days. Steroids reduce inflammation in the central nervous system and may help suppress the immune system's attack on myelin and even improve electrical conduction.
Steroids, in general, do not improve the long-term course of the disease and can lose effectiveness if over-used. They are not generally used for maintenance therapy. Some research, however, is reporting benefits from the use of pulsed administration of intravenous methylprednisolone. Such an approach typically administers the steroid daily for five days every four months for three years, then every six months for two years. Some research suggests that this approach might reduce destruction in central nervous system, although more evidence is needed before it can be recommended. They can also have considerable adverse effects when used over time.
Side Effects. Side effects of long-term use of steroids include weight gain and facial fullness, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, cataracts, intestinal bleeding, and increased susceptibility to infections. In addition, side effects of steroids on the central nervous system (e.g., sleeplessness, memory loss, anxiety, and depression) can be particular problems for MS patients. It is extremely important to taper withdrawal very carefully after continuously taking steroids for a prolonged period of time. This gives the body time to recover its own ability to produce natural steroids. A serious condition known as adrenal insufficiency can otherwise develop.
Interferons (so-called because they interfere with viral replication) both suppress important inflammatory factors in the immune system and have anti-viral properties. Interferons specifically block immune factors known as class II MHC molecules, which are associated with the attack on myelin and the breach in the blood-brain barrier that allows the destructive T-cells to pass through.
Specific Interferons Used for MS. Interferon agents used for MS include IFN1b (Betaseron) and IFN1a (Avonex, Rebif). They are now the treatments of choice for relapsing-remitting MS. Expert organizations are urging that they be used early in the course of the disease and continued indefinitely, unless they produce no benefits or have severe side effects.
Successes and Drawbacks. The major interferon preparations reduce flare-ups overall by 30% and have an even greater effect on reducing major relapses. Disease activity, as measured by MRI scanning, is reduced by over 80%. They appear to be about equal in reducing disability. To date, only Avonex has demonstrated slowing progression of mental impairment. It also appears to be better tolerated than other interferons. Studies on their effects on quality of life are limited. None of the interferons is a cure, in any case, and when the agent is discontinued, disease activity may increase. All of these agents need to be injected. (Oral forms are under investigation.)
Side Effects and Complications. Side effects include the following:
Neutralizing Antibodies That Reduce Effectiveness. Over time, people taking the interferons develop antibodies to the drugs, some of which can neutralize their effects. The risk for neutralizing antibodies (NAbs) increases with higher doses and greater frequency of use. Interferons injected under the skin (Betaseron, Rebif) are more likely to produce neutralizing antibodies than Avonex, which is injected into a muscle. Patients who experience this, however, often can be effectively treated with an alternative interferon or with glatiramer, which has an extremely low risk, for NAbs. In many cases, after switching drugs, NAb levels decline and the patient may be able to return to the original interferon.
Comparisons Between Major MS Agents
Glatiramer acetate (Copaxone) formerly called Cop-1 or copolymer-1, is a synthetic molecule created to resemble a basic protein found in myelin. It is being used as a decoy to trick white blood cells into attacking it instead of myelin. Studies indicate that this agent may be superior to others in reducing relapse rates, with a 2003 comparison study reporting relapse free rates of 83% during a 16-month period. The best results are in patients in early stages, but the longer patients remain on the drug, the greater the improvement. Benefits have persisted to date for years.
Side Effects. Side effects occur in about 15% of patients, usually right after the injection. They include pain at the injection site, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, flushing, anxiety, and shortness of breath.
Intravenous immunoglobulin treatments are monthly infusions of natural antibodies. They appear to have some modest benefits for relapsing-remitting MS. An analysis of studies suggests that it reduces relapse rates and occurrences of new lesions and slows disease progression in relapsing-remitting MS. It does not appear to reduce disability. It is extremely expensive and does not appear to have any benefits for patients with secondary progressive MS.
Immunosuppressants for Chronic Progressive MS
Many drugs being investigated for chronic progressive multiple sclerosis are immunosuppressants, which block certain factors in the immune system that contribute to the inflammatory process. Each of these drugs can produce serious side effects, including susceptibility to infection and many others. Evidence on benefits of most is uncertain, mainly because of high toxicity in many of them or study limitations. Still, some may help some patients with severe MS. Among immunosuppressant agents or procedures that have been investigated with little or no obvious benefits or unacceptably high side effects are total lymphoid irradiation, sulfasalazine, cyclosporine, acyclovir, and oral bovine myelin.
Mitoxantrone. Mitoxantrone (Novantron) is the first agent to be approved specifically for secondary progressive MS. Two studies suggested that it may be of some help in reducing progression and relapse rates. Cumulative doses can have toxic effects on the heart, however, and so the drug is only used for a limited period.
Methotrexate. In some patients, low doses of the immunosuppressant methotrexate may slow the course of chronic-progressive MS, particularly in those with secondary progressive MS. To date, studies have found beneficial effects only on the upper body, however. Although this drug, like all immunosuppressants, can have toxic side effects, it may be taken in low doses for MS and so side effects are generally minimal.
Cyclophosphamide. Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) blocks cell growth and also suppresses the immune system. Some studies, but not all, have reported benefits for patients with chronic progressive MS. Two small 2001 studies suggested that monthly intravenous administration or a combination with interferon-beta may help some patients with rapidly deteriorating MS. Cyclophosphamide has many side effects, including hair loss, nausea, vomiting, infertility, lung scarring, and blood abnormalities, and should be used for patients who do not respond to methotrexate.
Azathioprine. Azathioprine (Imuran) is designed to suppress the immune system and reduce the number of cells attacking the CNS myelin. It is used with or without steroids and is sometimes used as an alternative to patients with relapsing-remitting MS who do not respond to either interferon beta or glatiramer acetate. One study reported that 40% of patients had not experienced a relapse after taking the drug for three years, although others report only modest benefits. The drug has no effect on progression of disability.
Cladribine. Cladribine (Leustatin) may be effective in delaying progression in patients with chronic progressive MS. It has no significant effect on relapsing-remitting MS.