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Studies say MS pills show promise, risk

ATLANTA - Tests of the first two oral drugs developed for treating multiple sclerosis show that both cut the frequency of relapses and may slow progression of the disease, but with side effects that could pose a tough decision for patients.

Two experts not involved in the studies said the drugs appear effective but with potentially dangerous side effects. It's too soon to know if the pills will be approved by the government or widely adopted by physicians, they said.

About 2.5 million people around the world have multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that can cause muscle tremors, paralysis and problems with speech, memory and concentration.

Current treatments can reduce the duration and severity of symptoms but require daily or regular shots or infusions.

The new studies tested two types of pills. Cladribine, made by Merck Serono, is already sold to treat a rare blood cancer. For MS, it would be taken eight to 10 days a year. Fingolimod is a daily MS pill being developed by Novartis.

Patients on the pills were found to be about half as likely to suffer relapses of symptoms as those who took dummy pills or a commonly prescribed shot. But they also found both drugs significantly lowered immune defenses that allowed latent herpes viruses to rage in some patients. In one study, two people died of unchecked herpes infections.

The studies were being published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

There is no cure for MS, but steroids can reduce the duration and severity of symptoms, and seven treatments on the market have had success in reducing recurrence of symptoms. All involve daily or regular injections.

"I would be greatly relieved if I didn't have to prick myself or be pricked" with needles, said Ivana Vuletic, 49, of Chapel Hill, N.C., who has MS. Still, she said she wouldn't take the new pills if their side effects were too dangerous. - AP