multiple sclerosis MS
MS is an auto-immune disease istock

Early treatment of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) may reduce the risk of a definitive diagnosis of the condition, or of relapse after diagnosis. A relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis treatment known as interferon beta-1b improved the condition of people suffering from numbness and balance or vision problems – which can be preliminary signs of the disease.

MS is an auto-immune disease, meaning that the problems experienced by patients are caused by the immune system turning against the body – in this case attacking the myelin sheath in the brain and spinal chord.

There is currently no cure for the treatment although some drugs are available to alleviate the symptoms of the disease. One of these is interferon beta-1b, which is usually prescribed to patients with relapsing-remitting MS (see box).

In a recent, long-term study published in the journal Neurology, scientists have investigated whether starting this symptomatic treatment at the earliest stage of the disease might halt or delay its development.

11 years of follow-up

The scientists, from the University Hospital Basel in Switzerland, conducted a randomised controlled trial involving 468 patients who had experienced the first symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS. Half of them were directly given interferon beta-1b while the others received a placebo.

After two years, or once MS had been diagnosed – depending on what came first - this control group was also allowed to access the treatment. Both groups were then followed-up over a long period of 11 years. In fact, only 270 patients ended up participating in the full length of the trial.

The scientists found out that participants who had received interferon beta-1b from day one, before any diagnosis occurred, were 33 percent less likely to have been diagnosed with MS at the end of the trial than those in the control group.

For those who did go on to develop the disease, they took longer to have a first MS relapse than people in the control group diagnosed with MS – 1,888 days versus 931 days.

These findings are limited to the treatment of relapsing-remitting MS, but they do suggest knowing how to recognise the first signs of the disease is crucial. Immediately treating people with interferon beta-1b could be a step forward in preventing it from progressing to a more advanced stage, but more research is needed to find similar compounds that work for all MS patients.