MONDAY, Sept. 13 (HealthDay News) -- A common asthma drug might
accelerate the benefits of treatment for multiple sclerosis when
combined with standard medicine, new research suggests.
The authors of this small and preliminary study showed that
albuterol, prescribed for a variety of respiratory illnesses,
enhances the effects of glatiramer acetate, a drug already
prescribed for MS patients.
Because albuterol is known to reduce a substance in the body
connected to the onset of MS, doctors at Harvard looked at using
the drug as an add-on treatment.
Study author Dr. Samia J. Khoury said the study was designed to
see if the drug helped reduce symptoms of the inflammatory
"Albuterol causes the [immune system] cells to change the type of interleukin they produce to one that is beneficial in MS," said Khoury, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "The idea was that albuterol may enhance the effect of Copaxone [glatiramer acetate], and this was confirmed in the study."
Interleukins are molecules that enable cells to communicate with
one another. They promote or reduce the growth of cells involved in
the inflammatory process that is thought to drive MS.
Multiple sclerosis attacks the brain and spinal column and can
affect muscles throughout the body, resulting in problems walking,
breathing, and speaking, according to the U.S. National Institutes
of Health (NIH).
The disease destroys the protective myelin sheath surrounding
nerve cells, leading those cells to eventually shut down. Usually
diagnosed in early adulthood, it is estimated to cost billions each
year in the United States. It affects twice as many women as men,
and is five times more likely to be found in temperate climates,
according to the NIH.
Multiple sclerosis usually goes into remission and relapses in
unpredictable cycles. Except in severe cases, people with multiple
sclerosis have a normal life expectancy and live fairly normal
lives when treated, experts said.
Experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental
factors cause the disease. A variety of viruses have been looked
at, but no evidence supporting a role in the disease has been found
for any of them, according to the NIH.
In the study, 44 newly diagnosed patients were assessed when
they began treatment with glatiramer acetate using the Multiple
Sclerosis Functional Composite, a scale measuring leg, arm and hand
function, along with mental function. It found improvement in the
study group mainly in the leg function, or timed 25-foot walk,
within the first year. This is important because glatiramer acetate
can take a while to start working and albuterol was found to
enhance its efficacy in the first year, Khoury explained.
Neither patients nor doctors knew who received albuterol, a drug
with few side effects. Five participants dropped out, leaving 39
patients for the final analyses of the data.
Brain imaging showed reduced inflammation after treatment in
both groups, with no significant difference between the study group
and the control group.
Dr. Tracy M. DeAngelis, an assistant professor at the Corinne
Goldsmith Dickinson Multiple Sclerosis Center at Mount Sinai
Medical Center in New York City, said the study was important
because existing treatments for the disease are limited.
"FDA-approved therapies are all only partially effective," said DeAngelis. "We don't have any 100 percent effective therapies for MS, so using a combination of therapies with an already approved drug with a good safety record is very exciting."
DeAngelis noted the study also found fewer annual relapses for
the treatment group as well as a delay in "time to first
Noting the small size of the study, DeAngelis said "what is
needed now is a large, multi-center study in order to draw any
conclusion" about whether albuterol should be used in the normal
course of treating multiple sclerosis.
She said, a large study with yearly "relapse rates or MRI
activity as the primary endpoints" is needed because these will
better measure the efficacy of the combination treatment.
The Multiple Sclerosis Society has more on
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