High doses of a popular statin widely used to control blood cholesterol may significantly slow the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a new study published online in the British medical journal The Lancet.
In the Phase 2 study, researchers gave 140 chronic MS sufferers either a placebo or simvastatin (Zocor) over the course of two years. MRI imaging showed the brains of MS patients who took the statin shrank 0.288% per year, while brains in the placebo group shrank 0.584% per year – a 43% difference.
There were also small but significant improvements in disabilities caused by the disease.
“Our results show that oral simvastatin at 80 mg per day might be a treatment option for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which is currently untreatable, and warrants further investigation in a larger phase 3 trial,” said the team of researchers at University College London, Imperial College London, Brighton and Sussex Medical School and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
MS is a chronic disease which attacks the body’s central nervous system. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks a fatty substance called myelin, which coats nerves in the brain’s white matter. When the nerves are exposed, transmission of nerve impulses can be slowed or interrupted.
For most people with MS, relapses are initially followed by recovery periods or remissions. Symptoms may be mild or severe, ranging from numbness in the limbs to paralysis or loss of vision. Over time, recovery periods become incomplete, leading to progressive decline.
Exactly why simvastatin apparently slows that progression is unclear.
“The mechanism of action needs to be established, but might be due to an effect on vascular function or cell protection,” said lead researcher Jeremy Chataway of Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.
“Caution should be taken regarding over-interpretation of our brain imaging findings, because these might not necessarily translate into clinical benefit.”
There is no known cure for MS and drugs to treat it have limited effectiveness. An estimated 400,000 Americans have the disease and more than 2 million worldwide.