March 29, 2010 - New study findings may soon revolutionize multiple sclerosis (MS) treatment and diagnosis.
The study strongly suggests that there are two major types of MS and that a simple blood test can tell one from the other. By itself, that would be a major finding. But that's not all.
One type of MS responds to beta interferon, generally considered the best treatment. The other type does not -- and beta interferon treatment may even make it worse, find Stanford University researcher Lawrence Steinman, MD, and colleagues.
"I'm very excited about some of the implications of this," Steinman tells WebMD. "The most important implication is that a simple blood test could tell us who does and does not respond to beta interferon. It could be that about 25% of patients are in the 'do not benefit' group."
For patients who do respond to beta interferon, the study raises hopes that the drug may work better than previously thought. That's because the clinical trials that proved beta interferon to be effective likely enrolled both types of MS patients, watering down the drug's average efficacy in beta interferon responders.
In coming months, Steinman said, he hopes to show that the two kinds of MS respond differently to other MS drugs, too.
Patricia O'Looney, PhD, vice president for biomedical research at the National MS Society, said the study will help researchers solve some of the mysteries surrounding MS.
"No two people with MS are exactly alike in disease course and in response to therapy. Why is this?" O'Looney tells WebMD. "We don't understand why about 50% of people who take beta interferon don't respond well."
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease caused by haywire immune responses that attack the myelin sheath protecting nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The culprits are lymphocytes called CD4 T helper cells, sometimes called the quarterbacks of the immune system.
In MS, a subset of CD4 cells called Th1 cells direct an inflammatory immune response against myelin. Beta interferon dampens this signal, so it's a great help to people with MS -- at least, to those who respond to treatment.