Double Duty Drug: Statins May Fight MS

Cholesterol-busting statins show promise for multiple sclerosis. (Image credit: Eric Audras/Getty Images)

By Neha Sharma, D.O.

Cholesterol-busting statins may have an unexpected benefit for patients with multiple sclerosis, a new study found.

Researchers in the U.K. studied 140 patients diagnosed with the most severe form of the disease, known as secondary progressive MS. They found that high doses of statins - about double the average amount that patients take to keep their cholesterol levels in check - reduced the rate of brain shrinkage in these patients.

"I see hundreds of patients with secondary progressive MS in my clinic," said Dr. Jeremy Chataway, a neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and lead author of the study, published Tuesday in The Lancet.

"These patients are physically disabled and have no treatment," Chataway added, calling the study "an exciting first step."

Learn more about multiple sclerosis.

Statin treatment led to a 43 percent reduction in the rate of brain shrinkage in the patients in the study, according to Chataway. The hope is that putting the brakes on this shrinkage will slow the progression toward physical disability.

Neurology experts not involved with the research said the new findings are promising - but preliminary.

"Patients with secondary progressive MS are usually a step away from a cane, or already bed-bound or in a wheelchair," said Dr. John Cobroy, professor of neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The study is both well-executed and interesting, he said, but added that he feels the results should be further analyzed in advanced trials before doctors rush to give statins to all patients with MS.

While past research has suggested that the anti-inflammatory properties of statins may curb the damage in the brain seen in MS, researchers are still steps away from a full understanding of this relationship. Still, if statins - a widely used drug with a good safety profile - prove to have benefits against MS as well, they may be a welcome option against a disease for which treatments are so sparse.

This study "gives us first indications for treating and helping restore what's potentially lost," said Dr. Timothy Coetzee of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "It's proof of concept that you can take an existing strategy and repurpose it to target something else."

Doctor's Take

Multiple Sclerosis is a major cause of disability worldwide. As many as 400,000 Americans suffer from the disease, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The average age at diagnosis is 29 years in women and 31 years in men.

No therapy currently exists for secondary progressive MS, and more than half of MS patients eventually go on to develop this severe form of the disease. The notion that statins, a relatively safe and well-tolerated class of drugs with few side effects, can slow the progression of MS - and may even help with symptoms - is promising.

So should doctors prescribe the maximum dose of cholesterol pills to all patients with MS? Not yet - especially since this study is a preliminary trial and the results need to be confirmed. But for MS patients and their families, the research may be a rare ray of hope - and possibly even a sign of treatments to come.