Background: An important question in the treatment of MS is whether to start treatment for relapsing MS with a powerful therapy at the outset (called induction therapy), or to take a more traditional approach of starting with less powerful therapy and ramping up to a more powerful approach if relapses or other signs of disease activity continue (called escalation therapy).
Researchers from the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm, Sweden) set out to compare outcomes of people receiving induction therapy with a drug called rituximab, which is not specifically approved for the treatment of MS, compared to those receiving escalation therapy with one of the approved disease-modifying therapies. The investigators tracked whether the participants remained on therapy or discontinued it, which is an indirect measure of how well the treatment performed.
Rituximab: Rituximab is a monoclonal antibody (a protein made in the laboratory) that targets a specific protein (“CD20”) on the surface of immune B cells. B cells are known to be involved in the inflammation and damage to the brain and spinal cord in MS. Rituximab is FDA-approved for the treatment of several conditions including some cancers and rheumatoid arthritis, and it has been used “off-label” to treat several immune-mediated conditions, including MS. Rituximab is given by intravenous (into a vein) infusions every six months. A similar B-cell therapy approach that is manufactured differently, called ocrelizumab, was approved by the FDA in 2017 for the treatment of relapsing MS and primary progressive MS.
The Study: The researchers used data from the Swedish MS Registry and medical records of 494 people from two counties in Sweden who had been recently diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS. About 24% had been started on rituximab; other initial therapies included injectable therapies (such as interferons and glatiramer acetate = 43.5%), oral therapies (dimethyl fumarate =17.4% and fingolimod =3.4%), and natalizumab given by IV infusion (24.3%). The key outcome measured was the proportion of people who discontinued specific therapies.
Results: A higher proportion of people given rituximab remained on it, compared to those who received other initial therapies. The reasons for therapy discontinuation differed by type of treatment, but the most common reasons were side effects, disease activity or pregnancy. The authors also reported a trend for increased relapses and brain lesions in participants using treatments other than rituximab.
This study was funded by the Swedish Medical Research Council and others. The report, by Drs. Fredrik Piehl, Mathias Grandqvist and others (Karolinska Institute), was published online January 8, 2018 in JAMA Neurology.
Comment: Understanding which individuals do best on what therapies is important for enabling people with MS to make the best treatment choices. Unlike well-designed clinical trials that have protocols for patient selection and assessment of outcomes, and that randomly assign participants to treatment groups, this observational study was not able to account for factors that determined why any particular therapy was prescribed for any individual, or for all factors that may have triggered an individual or doctor to discontinue a particular therapy. Results of controlled trials – several of which are now underway – are needed to understand the comparative effectiveness of MS therapies.
Results from clinical trials, including new approaches to treating progressive MS, lifestyle and wellness research and myelin repair strategies were among more than 2,000 presentations made at the European Committee for Treatment and Research in MS (ECTRIMS) meeting held in London, England in September.
The world’s largest gathering of MS researchers convened more than 9,000 scientists and clinicians and industry representatives from across the globe, including many National MS Society-funded researchers, meeting and presenting on cutting-edge MS research progress. In addition, the European Rehabilitation in MS network met jointly with ECTRIMS this year.
During the conference, the International Progressive MS Alliance announced new investments of over $14 million US dollars to support three Collaborative Network Awards. These international teams were selected to accelerate the pace of research in key areas to speed new therapies for progressive MS.
Below are highlights of presentations focused on stopping MS, restoring function, and ending MS forever. In most cases, studies presented are considered preliminary. Many will be analyzed more thoroughly, and likely published in peer-reviewed journals.
Many presentations showed continued benefits of available therapies and longer-term safety information, as well as more evidence that early and ongoing treatment with a disease-modifying therapy has long-term benefits for controlling disease activity, delaying accumulation of disability, and protecting quality of life.
Siponimod in secondary progressive MS: More details were presented from a 60-month, phase 3 clinical trial of the experimental oral therapy siponimod (Novartis Pharmaceuticals AG) involving 1,651 people with secondary progressive MS. The trial met its primary endpoint, with those on active treatment showing a modest 21% reduced risk of disability progression compared to those on placebo. Secondary endpoints suggested that those on active therapy had 23.4% lower average change in brain volume and reduced MRI-detected lesion volume. The medication showed a similar safety profile to others that work by preventing white blood cells from entering the central nervous system. (Abstract #250)
More details from trial of lipoic acid in secondary progressive MS: Dr. Rebecca Spain and colleagues (Oregon Health & Science University) presented results from a small, controlled clinical trial on the oral anti-oxidant supplement called lipoic acid in people with secondary progressive MS. The lipoic acid group had 66% less brain tissue shrinkage, or atrophy, than the group taking inactive placebo pills. This pilot study suggests potential benefits if they hold up in a larger trial. (Abstract #222)
New results on gut bacteria: Efforts are advancing to pinpoint bacteria in the gut that may drive inflammatory immune system activity in MS and others that can suppress it, which may open the door to novel probiotic or other therapeutic approaches to treating MS.
Disappointing results for nerve-protection approaches: A small two-year clinical trial of fluoxetine (same compound as the anti-depressant Prozac) did not meet its goal of improving walking speed in people with progressive MS. The multi-center team from Belgium is still analyzing other results, such as changes in MRI and cognition. (Abstract #253) Likewise, a trial conducted at the University of Oxford tested the ability of amiloride to protect against nerve damage in people with acute optic neuritis (often an early sign of MS) failed to show any neuroprotective benefit. (Abstract #102) Additional trials of neuroprotective approaches to MS are ongoing.
Vitamin D deficiency and smoking linked to progression: Dr. Maria Isabel Zuluaga and team (Vall d’Hebron University, Barcelona) explored the independent impacts of smoking and vitamin D deficiency in a large group of people followed over time. They found that those with severe vitamin D deficiency (defined as blood levels at less than 8 ng/ml) showed an increased risk for MS disability, and active smokers also had an increased risk for disability progression. (Abstract #252) Graduate student Ms. Eva Rosa Petersen (Danish MS Center, Copenhagen) also found that smoking intensity was linked with higher frequency of relapses among people taking interferon beta. Smoking one pack of cigarettes per day increased relapse rates by 25%. (Abstract #178)
Vitamin D added to Rebif: A large international trial did not show a statistical difference between treatment groups after adding vitamin D (14,000 IU [350 µg] vitamin D3 daily) or placebo to Rebif therapy in relapsing MS, in terms of the percent of participants who were free from disease activity after 48 weeks. Dr. Raymond Hupperts (Orbis Medical Centre, Sittard-Geleen, The Netherlands), who presented results, noted that both groups were stable, which likely contributed to the inconclusive results. (Abstract #166)
Biomarkers under development: Teams are making headway toward having a simple test that can predict a person’s disease course, progression and response to therapy. Dr. Bibiana Bielekova (National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke) and team examined proteins in the spinal fluid of people with neurological diseases, including all types of MS, and identified a “signature” of markers that distinguished MS from other diseases, and also differentiated relapsing MS from progressive MS. (Abstract #219). Other investigators also reported progress in this area, including advances using “neurofilament light chain” as a biomarker. (Such as Abstracts #183, #249) These early results need further development but indicate that sensitive biomarkers for predicting disease course and response to therapy may become useful tools for the clinical management of MS.
RESTORING FUNCTION – WELLNESS, LIFESTYLE, SYMPTOMS
Home-based rehabilitation can work: With funding from the National MS Society, Dr. Gabriel Pardo (Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation) and colleagues compared the benefits of three approaches to rehabilitation for gait and balance in a small study: unsupervised home-based exercise 5 times/week; home-based exercise supervised remotely by a physical therapist 2-3 times per week via audio and visual conferencing; and home-based exercise plus in-person physical therapy 2-3 times/week. They found that all participants improved, and that the telerehabilitation program worked as well as the onsite program to improve gait and balance. Further research in larger trials could make telerehabilitation a cost-effective and more accessible alternative for people with MS. (Abstract #120)
Tackling fatigue: Dr. Vincent de Groot (VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam) reported results from three clinical trials testing different strategies over 16 weeks to lessen fatigue, in 90 people with MS: aerobic training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and energy conservation management. Only cognitive behavioral therapy effectively reduced severe fatigue in this short-term study. This is a commonly available type of psychotherapy. (Abstract #142) Read more about managing fatigue
Pain more common than previously reported: Dr. Carolyn Young (University of Liverpool) and colleagues found that nearly 66% of over 700 people with MS reported nerve pain. Higher levels were found in those who had MS for a longer time, had more severe disability, or were not working. (Abstract #P337) Read more about addressing pain in MS
New trial confirms Ampyra (fampridine) benefits: Dr. Jeremy Hobart (Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust) presented results from a large clinical trial of fampridine, a twice-a-day oral therapy that was previously approved for its ability to improve walking.. This trial wanted to show evidence that its benefits include meaningful functional improvements for people. The results over 6 months showed that 43% of those on active therapy had significantly better self-reported walking ability, mobility, and balance than those on placebo, with no new safety issues reported. (Abstract #254)
Cognitive rehabilitation enhances brain connections: Several studies showed that rehabilitation to improve cognition goes hand-in-hand with changes in brain connectivity (how areas of the brain interact). While many of these treatments are still experimental, some are available from rehabilitation specialists such as speech pathologists or neuropsychologists. Discuss options with your MS doctor:
Emerging treatment for muscle spasticity: Dr. Daniel Kantor (Kantor Neurology, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL) and colleagues report that in a trial of 354 people with relapsing-remitting or secondary progressive MS, Arbaclofen Extended Release Tablets (Osmotica Pharmaceuticals) significantly reduced spasticity compared to baclofen. The extended-release tablets caused significantly less sleepiness, drowsiness and dizziness than baclofen. (Abstract #128) The company reports that it has filed for FDA approval of Arbaclofen.
RESTORING FUNCTION – NERVOUS SYSTEM REPAIR
More Anti-LINGO Results: In June 2016 Biogen announced that its phase 2 clinical trial of anti-LINGO (proposed name opicinumab), an approach to repair myelin, did not meet its primary endpoint of improvement in physical function, cognitive function, or disability. The trial involved 418 people with relapsing MS who were taking interferon beta-1a (Avonex) plus one of several doses of intravenous opicinumab or placebo for 72 weeks. Dr. Diego Cadavid from the company described ongoing evaluations from the extensive testing and monitoring during the trial, which are helping to pinpoint the patient population, dosage and outcome measures that would inform the design of any future trials of anti-LINGO. (Abstract #192)
Myelin repair in pediatric and adult MS: Dr. Sabine Pfeifenbring (University of Göttingen, Germany) and an international team analyzed brain biopsies from children who had been diagnosed with MS and compared the extent of damage and natural myelin repair against those of adults with MS. They found that children showed less damage to myelin-making cells and more evidence of myelin repair than adults. However, some myelin repair was found to occur at virtually all ages in MS. (Abstract #194)
Exercise enhances myelin repair in mice: To investigate some reasons why exercise promotes benefits in people with MS, Drs. S. Jensen and Wee Yong (University of Calgary) did a study where mice with myelin damage in their spinal cords used running wheels soon after the injury. They reported finding more evidence of generation of myelin-making cells and myelin repair in the active mice than those that did not use the running wheels after injury. (Abstract: #P1210)
Emerging approaches to protection and repair: Dr. Martin Sanders (Io therapeutics) presented results from mice suggesting that the compound IRX4204 promotes repair of damaged myelin in mice. He noted that previous studies suggested that IRX4204 also showed signs of reducing immune attacks and protecting against nerve loss. This work was supported in part by a National MS Society’s Fast Forward investment. (Abstract #193)
Drs. Sarah Starossom, Samia Khoury and team (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston) reported on studies of Chi3l3, a naturally occurring molecule in the brain that can stimulate the transformation of resident stem cells into myelin-making cells. The team noted that it plays an important role in recovery from the MS-like disease in mice, and may have potential for development as a new treatment approach in MS. (Abstract #195)