Results of new multiple sclerosis treatment is good news for sufferers

File picture: Multiple sclerosis sufferers await advances to current treatments. Photo: ITV News

Some very good news for the tens of thousands of people in Britain who suffer from multiple sclerosis.

The results of two trials of a new treatment published in The Lancet today show it offers "the prospect of substantial improvement in quality of life and a better future". One patient who has been on the trial for nine years, after being diagnosed with MS in 2002, told me he hasn't developed a single symptom in that time.

The drug is being tried for what they call relapsing/remitting MS, the commonest kind, where symptoms develop sporadically, then tend to fade. In MS your immune system attacks your nerve fibres, not recognising them as "yours". The drug "reboots" your immune system and stops the attacks.

In one trial, doctors gave alemtuzumab (who thinks up these names?) to patients who'd never been treated for MS before. Over two years, only one in five of them relapsed (i.e. developed symptoms) - compared to 2 in 5 of patients given the best current treatment, interferon. In other words, it was twice as good as the best drug available.

In the second, they gave it to patients who had relapsed after current treatments. Among these patients (who are more difficult to treat) 35% suffered a further relapse, compared to 51% of patients given interferon. Again, significantly better than current treatments.

Dr Alasdair Coles, the lead author of the Lancet report, says "alemtuzumab is the only drug that has been shown to prevent worsening of disability more effectively than interferon".

But there's a sting in the tale. The drug's makers, Sanofi, have applied to the American and European drug regulators to licence it for treating MS. As part of that process, they've taken it off the market and will relaunch it when (and if) approval is given. But, some doctors fear, when they do, its price will be just too expensive for the NHS.

Doug Brown, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, told ITV News he welcomed the results:

What's more some patients in Britain (probably around 500) have already started getting the drug. Doctors can prescribe drugs "off-label" on their own initiative before they are given a licence. But now Sanofi has withdrawn the drug, doctors fear these patients won't get the drug to complete their course and so "miss their window of … opportunity". They say the withdrawal of the drug "may represent an over-enthusiastic attempt …to profit from the current situation".

The MS Society wants to make sure that this massive step forward in treating MS is cheap enough to be available on the NHS. What a tragedy it would be if this vastly promising drug was not freely prescribed to the thousands of patients who could benefit.