Statinscould soon be prescribed to treat multiple sclerosis after a groundbreaking trial began to see if the cheap cholesterol busting drug could delay symptoms.
The £6 million project is being led by University College London and involves 1,180 people at 30 centres across Britain.
It follows a successful small trial in 2014 which showed a significant reduction in the rate of brain shrinkage and an increase in mobility after two years for people on high doses of simvastatin , which usually prescribed to lower cholesterol.
Charities said the trial was a ‘momentous step’ forward which offered hope to thousands of people with relapsing MS.
The trial is scheduled to last six years, but because statins are already known to be safe and widely used, the treatment would quickly pass through regulators if it was deemed to be successful.
Lead researcher Dr Jeremy Chataway from University College London’s Institute of Neurology, who led an earlier study into the drug, said: “This drug holds incredible promise for the thousands of people living with secondary progressive MS in the UK, and around the world, who currently have few options for treatments that have an effect on disability.
“This study will establish definitively whether simvastatin is able to slow the rate of disability progression over a three year period, and we are very hopeful it will.”
MS affects more than 100,000 people in the UK.
The majority of people who are diagnosed with the condition are told they have relapsing MS and around half of those patients will develop secondary progressive MS within 15 to 20 years.
If simvastatin is found to work it could offer a cheap way of improving the condition, as statins only cost a few pence.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the MS Society, which is part-funding the trial, added: “This is a momentous step forward in our quest to find an effective treatment for progressive MS.
“More than 100,000 people in the UK are living with MS and this research will offer a huge amount of hope to the majority of them.”
Statins | What are the risks?
The review, published in The Lancet medical journal, claims the only adverse side-effects reliably shown to be caused by patients taking statins are myopathy – a type of muscle weakness – diabetes and haemorrhagic strokes.
A standard statin – such as atorvastatin, which patients can take daily in 40mg doses – typically leads to five cases of myopathy when taken by 10,000 patients over five years, according to the review. This means a patient’s risk of suffering from the muscle tissue disease is just 0.05 per cent.
Between 50 and 100 new cases of diabetes and up to 10 haemorraghic strokes would also likely be recorded, the report states. The total number of adverse events is not more than 200 (2 per cent) per 10,000 patients treated for five years, experts said.
In comparison, Department of Health statistics suggest statins lead to 5 cases per 100,000 patient years – half the amount The Lancet reports.
The review adds: “There is good evidence that statin therapy does not cause adverse effects on other health outcomes (chiefly muscle pain and weakness) that have been claimed prevent a large proportion of patients from continuing it long term (so called ‘statin intolerance’).”
Side effects including memory loss, cataracts, kidney injury, liver disease, sleep disturbance, aggression or erectile dysfunction should not be associated with statins, the report said.
MS is a condition of the central nervous system. People typically start experiencing symptoms in their 20s and 30s, which include fatigue, sight loss, incontinence and disability.
Secondary progressive MS patient Stuart Nixon added: “At the moment people like me are living with the prospect of our condition getting worse each day. This is the most exciting opportunity to change how we manage progressive MS.
“It would be amazing if this trial can show that an existing drug, costing just a few pence a day, can help with MS.”