Generic Drug Helps Multiple Sclerosis Damage in Mid-Stage Trial

  • Clemastine, used to treat allergies, improves eye-nerve speed
  • Trial shows statistically significant effect, researcher says

A generic drug for allergy symptoms showed signs that it may help patients with multiple sclerosis rebuild their eye nerves, offering a possible over-the-counter path to treat a disease now addressed with therapies from companies such as Biogen Inc.

Patients on the drug, called clemastine fumarate, sent signals between the eyes and the brain faster than those on placebo in a mid-stage study, according to a statement Tuesday from the American Academy of Neurology. That suggests the drug may be helping repair nerves that are damaged in some patients with multiple sclerosis.

“This was a statistically significant effect for people for the period they were on therapy, and not just marginally,” said Ari Green, the study’s lead author and medical director of the University of California at San Francisco’s Multiple Sclerosis Center. “This is a start down a very difficult path towards neural repair in multiple sclerosis.”

Biogen, a biotechnology company that makes most of its money from drugs treating MS, is working on an experimental therapy that also aims to repair eye nerves in those with the disease. Last year it said the drug, called opicinumab, showed a non-statistically-significant improvement in how fast those taking the treatment sent signals between the retina and the visual cortex. Results from a mid-stage trial of that drug are expected by the middle of 2016.

Allergy Drug

The clemastine study looked at the effects of the drug, a generic usually given for allergy symptoms, in 50 patients with MS who had mild disability and chronic inflammation of the nerve that sends visual information from the eye to the brain. Patients were randomly given clemastine or a placebo for three months and then given the other pill for the remaining two months of the study. Patients on the drug saw the time it took to send a signal from the retina to the brain fall by 1.9 milliseconds per eye, a statistically significant difference from those on placebo. The drug was also associated with an increase in fatigue, though no one who began the trial left it, according to Green.

There are no approved cures for MS, only drugs that help suppress the immune system or manage symptoms. Multiple sclerosis causes the immune system to attack myelin, a fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers.

Clemastine is believed to help repair damaged myelin by pushing stem cells in the brain toward becoming the cells involved in coating the nerves, Green said. He said advancing the drug into late-stage testing for MS will depend on whether the researchers are able to get enough funding, and how well the drug works in another study they’re running. The study will be presented on April 19 at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Vancouver.

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