Drug developed in Cambridge approved for treatment of multiple sclerosis


A new treatment for multiple sclerosis was approved recently by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The agency has approved the drug Alemtuzumab, to be known by the brand name Lemtrada.

In 1991, Alastair Compston (Professor of Neurology and head of the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge, UK) began to explore the use of Alemtuzumab (formerly known as Campath-1H) as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. He and Alasdair Coles, also from Cambridge, led the subsequent research to develop Alemtuzumab in partnership with Genzyme, a Sanofi company, which now owns rights to the drug (View video for more information on the history of Alemtuzumab’s development).

Commenting on the decision by the EMA, Compston said: “This announcement marks the culmination of more than 20 years’ work, with many ups and downs in pursuing the idea that Campath-1H might help people with multiple sclerosis along the way. We have learned much about the disease and, through the courage of patients who agreed to participate in this research, now have a highly effective and durable treatment for people with active multiple sclerosis if treated early in the course.”

Damage from multiple sclerosis prevents the nerves from ‘firing’ properly and ultimately leads to their destruction, resulting in physical and cognitive disabilities. Alemtuzumab reboots the immune system by first depleting lymphocytes. The system then repopulates, leading to a modified immune response that no longer regards myelin and nerves as foreign. But in so doing, roughly one third of multiple sclerosis patients develop another autoimmune disease after Alemtuzumab, mainly targeting the thyroid gland and more rarely other tissues especially blood platelets.

Coles’ research team is investigating how to identify people who are susceptible to this side-effect. Furthermore, they are testing whether this side-effect can be prevented, using an additional drug which boosts repopulation of the immune system, in a trial funded by the Moulton Charitable Trust and the Medical Research Council.

Coles, from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, said: “Alemtuzumab offers people with early multiple sclerosis the likelihood of many years free from worsening disability, at the cost of infrequent treatment courses and regular monitoring for treatable side-effects.”

Although approved for use in EU, the drug has not yet been assessed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.