In a two-year clinical trial involving 140 patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, the drug simvastatin slowed brain shrinkage, which is thought to contribute to patients’ impairments. Supporting this finding, patients on simvastatin achieved better scores on movement tests and questionnaires that assess disability than patients taking a placebo.
The authors of the new study, which was led by Imperial College London, said the findings were very encouraging, but would need to be replicated in a larger trial. The work is published in the Lancet.
“At the moment, we don’t have anything that can stop patients from becoming more disabled once multiple sclerosis reaches the progressive phase,” says Richard Nicholas, co-author of the study from the Department of Medicine at Imperial. “Discovering that statins can help slow that deterioration is quite a surprise. This is a promising finding, particularly as statins are already cheap and widely used.
“We need to do a bigger study with more patients, possibly starting in the earlier phase of the disease, to fully establish how effective it is,” he added.
Nicholas ran the trial with Jeremy Chataway, then in the Department of Medicine at Imperial and now at University College London.
Statins are taken by millions of people to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, but it’s unclear why they would have a beneficial effect on multiple sclerosis. Some small studies have found a small benefit from statins in relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, which is more treatable.
Secondary progressive multiple sclerosis has proven more challenging to alleviate. In 2013, cannabis became the latest drug to prove unsuccessful at slowing the progression of multiple sclerosis in a clinical trial.
This clinical trial is the culmination of long-standing research led by John Greenwood at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology showing the potential therapeutic benefits of using statins to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and uveitis.
Greenwood says, “After nearly two decades of research, it is immensely gratifying to see this work progress into the clinic to deliver benefits to patients.”
The study was funded by J P Moulton Foundation, Berkeley Foundation, Multiple Sclerosis Trials Collaboration, Rosetrees Trust and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).