January 21st, 2010
05:18 PM ET

At last! Oral therapies for MS closer to reality

By Georgiann Caruso
CNN Medical Associate Producer

As someone living with the neurological disease multiple sclerosis (MS), I have blogged in the past about advances in treating the condition. And I have some good news to blog about today.

Three new studies, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, are very encouraging for people with relapsing-remitting MS. Clinical trial results show two drugs - cladribine and fingolimod - are proving successful at fighting the disease. Both appear to have the same benefits: a reduction in relapse rates, the potential to slow the progression of disability and a reduction of visible MS activity in the brain as seen on MRIs. Plus – and this is one of the best parts – they are both pills. Never before has the MS community been so close to a world of needle-free treatments. Questions, however, still remain about the drugs' long-term safety; more studies are needed.

Because both drugs affect the immune system, there were increased infection rates among people taking the drugs as compared to placebo. And investigators are keeping a close eye on the incidence of cancer to determine if these drugs are linked to higher rates.

Dr. John Richert, executive vice president of Research & Clinical Programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said the side effects appear to largely be manageable. "It will be important for the companies to set up long-term follow-up studies as surveillance," Richert said.

Richert also said that this long-term data would help doctors and patients make a better informed choice when considering one of these options. He also noted that "oral" should not imply that the drugs are less effective, or more safe.

He added that having a more convenient choice of treatment may prompt patients to start therapy earlier and to stay on their medications long-term – two variables that make a big difference in combating the disease.

Both drug makers are working with the FDA to be evaluated for approval in the United States.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.