Ann Romney’s openness about her struggles with multiple sclerosis has cheered MS patient advocates who say her experiences have raised awareness along with the hopes of the estimated 400,000 Americans who have the disease.
But she’s not the only reason MS advocates have to cheer these days.
A number of promising new MS therapies are in the pipeline that are expected to dramatically help people like the wife of GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney as well as many other Americans with the debilitating neurological condition.
“Because MS is such an unpredictable disease which affects each person in a unique way, every new treatment option that becomes available to people living with MS offers new hope for an improved quality of life,” said Dr. Nicholas LaRocca, vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research at the National MS Society.
Dr. LaRocca told Newsmax Health that at least seven major new treatments are under review, some of which could get the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as early as this year. “Some build on and improve current therapies, others go beyond,” he said.SPECIAL: These 5 Things Flush 40 lbs. of Fat Our of Your Body
Among them: A promising line of adult stem cell research that could yield new treatments.
“Scientists are currently studying the use of a particular type of stem cells called mesenchymal stem cells,” he noted. “These stem cells are derived from the patient by removing them from the bone marrow. The cells are then grown in the lab and infused into the patient. The hope is that these new cells will have a neuroprotective and/or restorative effect.”
MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. About 200 new cases are diagnosed every week, according to the National MS Society. It strikes more women than men, and is often diagnosed between ages 20 and 40.
About 85 percent of patients are initially diagnosed with what is called relapsing-remitting MS, characterized by flare-ups or attacks that cause lesions to form on the brain and affect the ability to walk, see, and function as before. More than half of patients eventually develop a progressive form of MS, causing the loss of these functions. Ann Romney, 63, was diagnosed with the disease in 1998 but is currently in remission. She has kept a hectic schedule while campaigning for Mitt and shows no symptoms. Ann is also a breast cancer survivor
Although there is no cure for MS, the FDA-approved drugs used to treat it — including Avonex, Betasero, Copaxone, Extavia and Rebif — are effective at controlling flare-ups and symptoms. In the past two years, three medications have been approved specifically to control MS symptoms: Ampyra to aid walking, Nuedexta for uncontrolled laughing or crying, and Botox for incontinence and muscle control.
Early MS drugs included mostly immune-suppressing interferons delivered via injection or infusion. But new drugs target specific molecules involved in the disease, rather than simply tamping down the immune system to reduce inflammation in the brain.
Mrs. Romney has said she manages her condition using a combination of conventional and alternative treatments. She has reportedly credited exercise — horseback riding in particular — with helping her stay healthy.
Dr. LaRocca credited the Romneys with bringing new energy and attention to the work being done to improve the lives of MS patients. “Any example of a prominent individual with MS speaking openly about their experiences helps to build understanding with the general public and also helps to eliminate any stigma that people may feel is associated with MS,” he said.
Here are seven new MS treatments:
• Ddimethyl fumarate (BG-12) — Made by Biogen-Idec, this twice-daily oral medication has been shown to reduce the risk and rate of relapses and slow the progression of disability in clinical studies involving several thousand patients. Approval for more widespread use was recently filed with the FDA, and advocates hope it will be fast-tracked for wider use. BG-12 is thought to inhibit the action of immune cells and molecules and may be protective against damage to the brain and spinal cord.
“If the FDA’s review of oral BG-12 finds it to be safe and effective, it would represent an important treatment advance for people with MS,” said Dr. Aaron Miller, chief medical officer of the National MS Society.
• Alemtuzumab (Campath) – Produced by the Genzyme biotech company, Campath is what’s known as a monoclonal antibody that suppresses certain immune system functions. Studies comparing the new drug to the conventional medicine Rebif have found that patients on Alemtuzumab are more likely to be relapse-free for two years, and have a variety of other clinical benefits. Among them: less brain atrophy and lesions, fewer liver and thyroid abnormalities, slowed heart rate, less hypertension, and a lower risk of infections.
• PEGylated Interferon beta-1a (BIIB017) — Made by Biogen-Idec, this medicine is an extended-release version of Avonex and requires it be taken only every 2-4 weeks. Because it has been found to be effective, and easier to take, it is being fast-tracked by the FDA, LaRocca said, and it could be available as early as 2012.
• Mesenchymal stem cells — Results of a clinical trial involving 10 people with secondary-progressive MS suggest that injecting a person’s own bone marrow stem cells (mesenchymal cells) appears safe and may be beneficial in helping to protect the nervous system from injury from MS. Additional trials now underway should further establish the safety and potential benefit of this approach for treating MS. The study, published in the February edition of the journal Lancet Neurology, is one of many MS research projects underway involving stem cells.
• Daclizumab — Manufactured by Biogen Idec, this drug is also a monoclonal antibody that has been found to significantly reduce the rate of relapses in MS patients in clinical trials. It, too, is being fast-tracked by the FDA and may be available soon.
• Teriflunomide — Produced by Sanofi pharmaceuticals, this oral medicine, taken daily, was found to decrease the action of immune system cells and inflammation. It has also been shown to reduce relapses, lesions, the risk of progression, hair thinning, and nausea.
• Ocrelizumab — Manufactured by Biogen Idec and Genentech (Roche), this injected medicine is also a monoclonal antibody that suppresses the action of certain immune system cells. Compared to Avonex and an (inactive) placebo, it also reduced patients’ relapse rate, progression of disease systems, fever, chills, heart arrrythmias, shortness of breath, headache, itching, and rashes. Patients are now being recruited for a new study comparing its effects to Rebif.SPECIAL: How One Deck of Cards Has Shown to Improve Memory