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British Researchers Make Major Multiple Sclerosis Breakthrough

British scientists have found that a drug used to fight leukemia appears to stop multiple sclerosis in its early stages and restore lost function to patients. Campath is still in the clinical trial phase. Although it carries a risk of potentially serious side effects, it is being called by some the most promising and most significant MS treatment yet discovered. For VOA, Tom Rivers reports from London.

The three-year study conducted by Cambridge University researchers found for the first time a treatment that showed long-term multiple sclerosis disability improvement.

It is estimated that at least 2.5 million people around the world have the neurological disease. Multiple sclerosis causes the body's immune system to mistakenly attack and damage the insulation that protects nerve fibers.

In this study, more than 300 patients received an annual dose of the drug alemtuzumab, which was created at Cambridge 30 years ago to kill off cancerous immune system cells in leukemia patients.

The participants in this MS study were in the early diagnosis stage of the disease and all had experienced various so-called episodes of MS such as blurred vision and numbness; things that typically can last weeks or months.

At the end of the trial period, it was found that the drug cut the number of attacks patients experienced by 74 percent compared to the currently most common conventional therapy.

Team leader Dr. Alastair Compston says those numbers are dramatic and encouraging.

"Within a few months of treatment, the disease has settled down and very few of the patients have had any more attacks and very few of them have had any extra disability," he said. "In fact, many of them have even started to get better."

Compton's associate, Dr. Adasdair Coles says the drug changes lives.

"We give them this drug and three years later, they are more able to do their work. They are more able to look after their family," Dr. Coles said. "They are more able to play the sports that they enjoyed. And that is what this drug alemtuzumab has given to them."

At Britain's MS Society, Dr. Lee Dunster agrees. He says the new treatment looks very promising.

"To have a drug that for the first time reduces relapses, reduces the risk of disability progression and possibly reverses some of the disability will be the single most important breakthrough in the treatment of early relapsing-remitting MS that we have seen to date," he said.

A minority of those in the study experienced side effects such as over-active or under-active thyroid gland function, but it is pointed out that that can easily be treated. More clinical trials are under way and if all goes well, the treatment could be available on the market in as little as four years.