Asthma drug slows brain shrinkage from multiple sclerosis

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A drug called ibudilast slows the brain shrinkage associated with progressive forms of multiple sclerosis, according to a new clinical trial.

“These results indicate that ibudilast may be effective in protecting the central nervous system and slowing the damage to the brain that is caused by MS,” says study coauthor Andrew Goodman, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who served on the national steering committee for the Phase II clinical trial, dubbed SPRINT-MS, which researchers from the Cleveland Clinic led.

“While more clinical research is necessary, the trial’s results are encouraging and point towards a potential new type of therapy to help people with progressive MS,” Goodman says.

Ibudilast has been available in Japan and other countries in Asia for more than two decades as a treatment for asthma and post-stroke symptoms.

MS is a neurological disorder in which the body’s own immune system attacks myelin, the fatty tissue that insulates the nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Inflammation that damages myelin causes these attacks, which disrupt communication between nerve cells and leading to cognitive impairment, muscle weakness, and problems with movement, balance, sensation, and vision.

MS usually presents with a relapsing-remitting course, in which symptoms occur then disappear for weeks or months and then may reappear, or primary and secondary progressive courses, which lead to a gradual decline in function.

While there are more than a dozen approved therapies for relapsing forms of MS, treatment options for progressive MS are very limited and it is unclear whether any of the existing treatments can slow the gradually worsening symptoms of the disease process.

Ibudilast has been available in Japan and other countries in Asia for more than two decades as a treatment for asthma and post-stroke symptoms. The drug is a small molecule taken orally that acts to suppress proteins called cytokines that promote inflammation and researchers speculate that it may help limit the brain damage that occurs in MS.

The study involved 255 individuals specifically selected with progressive MS who were randomized into groups who either took ibudilast or placebo pills every day for 96 weeks. Every six months, the participants underwent MRI brain scans. The researchers found that the drug slowed overall brain atrophy—or shrinkage—that is associated with MS by 48 percent compared to those that took the placebo.

“These findings provide a glimmer of hope for people with a form of multiple sclerosis that causes long-term disability but does not have many treatment options,” says Walter J. Koroshetz, director of National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Additional researchers from the Network for Excellence in Neuroscience Clinical Trials, a national network of 28 institutions, contributed to the study.

The results appear in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Source: University of Rochester