THURSDAY, April 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A new three-year study finds that a multiple sclerosis drug is more likely to prevent patients from progressing to a definite form of MS if it's given early in patients who appear to be ill.
The drug, a form of interferon called "interferon beta-1a," is not available in the United States. It is, however, available in countries in the European Union, Canada and elsewhere.
"While we've known it's beneficial to start MS drugs as soon as possible, this is the first trial to show a benefit of early injections of interferon beta-1a treatment at three years," Dr. Mark Freedman, of the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, said in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.
The study tracked 517 people who had brain lesions and symptoms -- such as tingling, numbness or balance problems -- that suggested they might have multiple sclerosis.
One-third of the study participants received 44-microgram doses of interferon beta-1a three times a week, one-third received the drug once a week and one-third received an inactive placebo for two years until they showed more signs of having the disease. At that point, they got the dose three times a week.
After two years, 133 people were still taking a placebo. They were then switched to the 44-microgram dose three times a week.
Those who got the drug three times a week for the entire time of the study were less likely to develop what is known as clinically definite MS. Twenty-seven percent of them did so, compared with 28 percent of those who got one dose a week for the entire period, and 41 percent of those who switched mid-stream from the placebo to the actual drug.
Side effects included flu-like symptoms, injection-site reactions and headache.
The findings were released April 19 and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting, held April 21 to 28 in New Orleans.
"This research adds to a consistent body of evidence suggesting that early treatment for MS is usually better than waiting," Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer at the National MS Society, said in an interview. "Continued research in this area is important so that we can gain a fuller understanding of how therapeutic options actually impact the course of MS and, hopefully, lead to improved quality of life for those diagnosed with MS in the future."
The study, which lasts for five years, is continuing. The research is supported by the pharmaceutical company Merck Serono S.A., of Geneva.
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about multiple sclerosis