Epilepsy drug could protect nerves from damage in MS

A study funded by two Progressive MS Alliance members, the MS Society (UK) and the National MS Society (USA), has found that a drug currently used to treat epilepsy could become a neuroprotective treatment for people with all types of MS.

Researchers led by Scientific Steering Committee member, Raj Kapoor (from the UCL Institute of Neurology) found the anti-convulsant drug phenytoin protected neural tissue in people with optic neuritis. Optic neuritis is a symptom of MS which causes the nerves carrying information between the eye to the brain to become inflamed and damaged.

Results (published in Lancet Neurology) showed people who had received phenytoin experienced, on average, 30% less damage to the nerve fibre layer compared to those on the placebo.

The findings, presented first at the American Academy of Neurology 67th Annual Meeting, bring researchers one step closer to establishing neuroprotective drugs for people with MS – currently there are none.

Potential to treat progressive MS

Dr Emma Gray, Head of Clinical Trials at the MS Society (UK), said “This is great news for people with MS and we’re very proud to have co-funded this trial. There are currently no available treatments which directly protect the nerves from damage in MS and, if effective, this treatment could be beneficial for all types of MS, which is currently unheard of. Our goal is to ensure all people with MS have access to effective treatments that can slow, stop or reverse the damage caused in MS. This trial brings us one step closer to our goal.”

Dr Bruce Bebo, Executive Vice President, Research, at the National MS Society (USA), said “The Society made a strategic investment to encourage research in the area of neuroprotection as an approach to preventing progressive disability in people with MS. An intriguing aspect of this study is that it involved repurposing a therapy already on the market, an approach that could cut years of development time and speed the use of medications for a new indication such as MS.”

Next steps

The researchers anticipate these positive results should encourage larger, phase 3 trials involving people living with MS (not everyone on this trial had MS, but they all had optic neuritis).

As the study looks at repurposing an existing treatment already shown to be clinically effective, phenytoin could potentially be used as an MS treatment in a much shorter timescale than usual.

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