Cholesterol-lowering drugs, widely used to reduce the risk of heart attack, could also be effective in treating multiple sclerosis, according to new research published on Friday.
The news underscores the reputation of statins as potential miracle pills to rival aspirin.
Already hailed for revolutionizing the management of heart disease, the drugs -- which will soon be available over the counter in Britain -- are also being studied in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis.
Now researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina have produced the first clinical evidence that statins can help in multiple sclerosis in an article in The Lancet medical journal.
A group of 30 patients with MS were given 80 mg a day of Merck & Co.'s Zocor, or simvastatin, and had a 44 percent reduction in brain lesions after three months of treatment, the study showed.
Brain lesions are areas of inflammation and are markers of the progression and severity of MS, a debilitating disease in which nerve cells lose their insulating sheath, leading to muscle weakness, fatigue, bladder problems and impaired vision.
Since existing MS treatments, such as interferons, are expensive, must be injected and are only partially effective, swapping to statin pills -- already taken by millions of people every day -- would offer clear advantages.
More research needed
But Professor Chris Polman, an MS expert at the VU Medical Centre in Amsterdam, said more research was needed, including a large placebo-controlled clinical trial. The first of these trials is about to commence and could take around two years.
“It’s a very good start but it’s not conclusive,” Polman said in a telephone interview, adding it was possible some brain lesions may have disappeared spontaneously, given the relapsing-remitting nature of the disease.
The positive findings from Timothy Vollmer and colleagues in South Carolina follow earlier research showing statins can reverse paralysis caused by a similar condition to MS in mice.
Statins were first developed for their ability to block an enzyme involved in the liver’s production of cholesterol. But scientists have since found they also counter inflammation that may be central to several chronic degenerative diseases.
Mike O’Donovan, chief executive of Britain’s MS Society, said the latest findings were encouraging.
“These are early days, but we must hope statins can prove to be an effective weapon in the growing armoury of treatments to attack this very distressing life-long disease,” he said.
Still, much work remains to be done, including discovering the optimal dose for statins in MS, which may have to be considerably higher than for people with high cholesterol.
In the meantime, Polman urged MS sufferers not to switch from existing medications, warning that premature use of statins could develop into a “dangerous boomerang.”
That risk may be heightened in countries such as Britain, which this week became the first to approve the sale of simvastatin without prescription, although only at a low 10 mg dose.