April 20, 2012 -- Early use of the multiple sclerosis drug interferon beta-1a might slow and even stop progression of the disease, according to new research from the American Academy of Neurology.
Patients who received interferon soon after their first disease symptoms were less likely to see the disease progress into "clinically definite" multiple sclerosis, which is categorized as having had two separate attacks along with two separate lesions.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. The disease attacks the myelin sheath, a protective covering that surrounds nerve cells.
The disease is degenerative, and symptoms can vary. Patients suffer attacks that can last days, weeks or months. Symptoms affect the muscles, bowel function, vision, numbness, sexual function and personality.
"While we've known it's beneficial to start MS drugs as soon as possible, this is the first trial to show a benefit of early injections of interferon beta-1a treatment at three years," Dr. Mark Freedman of the University of Ottawa in Ontario and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology said in a statement.
The three-year trial involved 517 people who had experienced their first MS symptoms, which includes tingling, numbness, muscle weakness or balance problems. The participants also showed at least two lesions on their brain that were detected through MRI scans.
One-third of the patients received injections of the drug three times each week, one-third received the injections once a week, and one-third received a placebo. After two years, the patients who received the placebo were then given a three-times-per-week dose of the drug for another year.
Researchers found that those who received the once-a-week dosage or three-times-per-week dosage were less likely to experience a second demyelinating attack three years after the study's start.
Experts said the preliminary study results reinforce the benefits of diagnosing and beginning treatment early for patients with MS.
"Early on, there are few MS lesions, little brain damage, and much better ability of the brain to repair the damage remyelination," said Dr. Anthony Reder, a neurologist and multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago. "The repair process is helped by MS therapies."
It is likely that slowing inflammation early in the disease is preserving nerve cells from damage, as well, said Dr. Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"I think the overall takeaway is that this research adds to a consistent body of evidence suggesting that early treatment for MS is usually better than waiting," Coetzee said. "Continued research in this area is important so that we can gain a fuller understanding of how therapeutic options actually impact the course of MS and, hopefully, lead to improved quality of life for those diagnosed with MS in the future."
Researchers said the results from the study, known as the REFLEXION trial, should be considered preliminary because the trial is ongoing.