Cancer Drug Rituxan Cuts MS Flare-ups
Studies Show Multiple Sclerosis Patients Taking Rituxan Have Fewer Brain Lesions
Fewer Flare-ups in People on Rituxan
Both of the new studies involved people with the relapsing-remitting form of
MS. In the first study, 69 people were given two one-hour infusions of
Rituxan two weeks apart and 35 were given a placebo.
Over the next six months, 58% fewer people taking the drug had their
symptoms flare up than those taking placebo: 14.5% of those on Rituxan
experienced at least one relapse compared with 34.3% of those receiving a
Also, those on Rituxan had 91% fewer brain lesions seen on MRIs than those
on placebo, Hauser says.
The second study, designed to look at the safety of the drug, showed "no
unexpected problems," says researcher Amit Bar-Or, MD, of the Montreal
Neurological Institute at McGill University in Montreal.
Twenty-six of 28 people were able to complete the 48-week study, in which
they received two infusions of Rituxan two weeks apart and then another course
six months later.
Most side effects were limited to mild to moderate reactions to the drug
infusion, such as headaches and chills, Bar-Or tells WebMD. The two people who
dropped out had infusion-related headaches.
Both studies were supported by Genentech Inc., and Biogen Idec., the
companies that market the drug for certain types of lymphoma and for a moderate
to severe form of rheumatoid arthritis in the U.S.
Safety a Concern
Gary Birnbaum, MD, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Treatment and Research
Center in Golden Valley, Minn., says a big worry is a rare but rapidly fatal
viral infection known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or
And while people on Rituxan appear to have fewer MS flare-ups, "we still
don't know if it will actually stop disease progression," Birnbaum tells
"These are important observations," Birnbaum says. "But we need
longer trials to assess safety and effectiveness."
Immediate Drug Therapy Better Than Waiting
In a third study presented at the meeting, researchers reported that people
who immediately start taking Betaseronat the first signs of MS are 41% less
likely to have another attack over the next three years than those who delay
treatment until they are diagnosed, as is currently done.
Betaseron is a brand of the interferon beta medications that are already
used to treat people with relapsing-remitting MS. Other brands of interferon
beta, which may reduce the frequency of relapses and delay disability, are
Avonex and Rebif.
"I was one of those skeptics who told patients [who had one attack] we
could wait," says researcher Mark S. Freedman, MD, director of the Multiple
Sclerosis Unit at the University of Ottawa.
"But it turns out there is an 80% chance a person who has one attack
will meet the criteria for MS by two years," he tells WebMD. "Immediate
treatment can prevent or delay the chance of progression."
Freedman says it's possible that immediate treatment with the other
interferon beta medications would provide the same benefit. "But it hasn't