The combination of two inexpensive blood tests may help predict when someone is developing multiple sclerosis, allowing doctors to begin treatment earlier, Austrian researchers said Wednesday.
The findings, published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, could simplify the difficult process of diagnosing the long-term illness, which afflicts some 400,000 Americans.
Existing methods are imperfect because MS can mimic other medical conditions, and the symptoms can wax and wane unpredictably.
MS is caused by chronic inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. The sometimes-fatal disease, which usually appears between the ages of 20 and 50, can cause a wide assortment of problems, including poor coordination, paralysis, blurred vision and extreme fatigue.
Traditionally, before doctors can make a definitive diagnosis, patients must develop nerve-related problems in two different areas of the body, and those appearances must be separated by at least six months.
But in a new study using people who had already suffered one round of MS-like symptoms, the researchers found that 95 percent of the volunteers whose blood showed traces of antibodies to two telltale proteins had a relapse, usually within 8 months.
In contrast, among the high-risk people who tested negative for the antibodies, only 23 percent developed another round of nerve-related problems and the relapse, when it came, took an average of nearly four years.
If the results are confirmed, patients with the two blood antibodies may be candidates for immediate treatment with interferon, said Stephen Reingold, vice president for research programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Many doctors believe early treatment can delay the appearance of a second attack.
“So you may end up with a benefit there — at least a short-term benefit,” Reingold told Reuters. “But we don’t know if treatment at that stage will make any difference 15 or 20 years from now.”
Patients may want to weigh whether to begin treatments early because interferon is expensive and can have serious side effects, he said.