Over 130,000 people live with multiple sclerosis (MS) in the UK, and a diagnosis can have a profound impact. But research has got us to a critical point, and we believe we’re now on the cusp of a major research breakthrough.
Most people will first experience MS symptoms in their 20s and 30s when they’re working on their career, or perhaps thinking about starting a family. The condition affects everyone differently, but it can be relentless, painful and disabling.
The nerves in our central nervous system send messages around the body and control everything we do. They enable us to do everyday things, like walk, talk, eat and think. But in MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin – the protective coating around the nerves – causing damage. This means messages in the brain and spinal cord struggle to get through or can’t get through at all – which can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including muscle spasms, pain, fatigue, and bladder and vision problems.
Most people with MS are initially diagnosed with the relapsing form, where their symptoms come and go. Over time though, many people will transition to secondary progressive MS, where disability gets steadily worse. Around 15% of people are diagnosed with primary progressive MS, where disability progresses from the outset, rather than appearing as sudden attacks.
Moving MS research forward
We have made huge progress in MS research over the last 30 years. We now have over a dozen licensed treatments for people with the relapsing form of the condition, and some are emerging for progressive MS. We’ve also made significant headway in understanding the causes and factors that influence someone’s risk of developing MS.
Since we were founded in 1956, we’ve invested nearly £230 million in today’s money into high-quality MS research. We work closely with people with MS and healthcare professionals to ensure that all of the research we fund will have the biggest possible impact on people’s lives. And people with MS have told us that their number one priority is to slow or stop the progression of their disability.
The existing treatments we have for MS are able to target rogue immune activity, reducing the damage to myelin. However, we still don’t have treatments that can replace the lost myelin or protect nerves from damage. To really stop MS and stop disability progression, we need to find treatments that can do both these things.
Old drugs, new conditions
Clinical trials have given us a variety of treatments for many people with MS, but there are still tens of thou- sands of people who don’t have access to disease modifying treatments. While we know all too well that trials can take many years to complete, and there is a high risk of failure, we also know that people with MS cannot wait – which is why we’ve been working on ways to speed up clinical trials and get much needed new drugs to people, faster.
One way we’re doing this is through drug repurposing, where we test drugs already proven to be safe and effective in other conditions. When we already know a treatment is safe, it means we can move it forward into later-stage trials much more quickly. For example, our ongoing MS-STAT2 trial is testing simvastatin (a drug usually used to lower cholesterol) in people with secondary progressive MS. Results so far have shown that simvastatin is able to reduce brain shrinkage, indicating that it can protect nerves from damage. Our MS-STAT2 researchers are now aiming to fully test whether simvastatin could help people with secondary progressive MS. If successful, it could become the first treatment for nerve protection in MS.
An innovative new trial
Despite some promising results from recent clinical trials, testing one treatment at a time can be very slow – which is why we’re aiming to set up a new type of trial. Our clinical trials platform will use an innovative trial design, allowing researchers to test multiple drugs at the same time without having to stop and start different trials. To do this – and much more – we are aiming to raise £100 million through our Stop MS Appeal. Our community are playing a vital role in this and have so far helped us to raise over £50 million. Through their support and the dedicated work of leading MS researchers and clinical trial experts, by 2025, we aim to be in the final stages of testing a range of treatments for everyone with MS.
“The existing treatments we have for MS are able to target rogue immune activity, reducing the damage to myelin. However, we still don’t have treatments that can replace the lost myelin or protect nerves from damage. To really stop MS and stop disability progression, we need to find treatments that can do both these things.”
We have never been closer to stopping MS than we are today, and we can see a future where no one needs to worry about their condition getting worse. We believe that with further investment treatments that can slow or stop disability progression for everyone with MS are now a very real prospect.
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