Statins might fight multiple sclerosis

Statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs taken by millions of people, might also help those with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a preliminary study appearing in the May 15 Lancet.

Various studies have indicated that statins—in addition to slashing the harmful low-density lipoprotein cholesterol—have anti-inflammatory effects. Scientists reasoned that this might help MS patients, who have areas of brain tissue where the fatty sheath that insulates nerves has been stripped away by an inflammation-based immune onslaught. The damage to these structures, called myelin sheaths, can adversely affect coordination, vision, stamina, speech, and thinking, and it can lead to a shorter lifespan.

In the new study, researchers gave simvastatin (Zocor) to 28 MS patients for 6 months. The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to reveal brain lesions before and after treatment. They found about half as many lesions, on average, after treatment as there had been before treatment. They also observed a reduction in the size of remaining lesions. As such, simvastatin was about as effective as standard MS drugs, says study coauthor Inderjit Singh of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

The five drugs approved for MS in the past decade are only partially effective in protecting myelin and require visits to a clinic for injection, Singh says. Simvastatin, like other statins, is available in a pill and is considerably less expensive than the MS drugs, he says.

To establish clearly that a statin works against MS, he says, the drug will need to be tested for at least 2 years in a study in which some patients receive inert pills. Meanwhile, Singh cautions doctors against prescribing statins for MS. However, the decision may soon be out of doctors’ control in some places: Britain plans to permit the sale of statins without a prescription starting this summer.

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