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A drug that has long been used in Japan for asthma may slow down brain shrinkage in people with progressive multiple sclerosis, a preliminary trial has found.

The study, published Aug. 30 in the New England Journal of Medicine, tested an oral drug called ibudilast. It is not approved in the United States, but has been used for years in Japan as a treatment for asthma and for vertigo in stroke survivors.

Researchers found that the drug slowed brain shrinkage by 48 percent when compared with an inactive placebo among patients with progressive MS.

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disorder caused by a misguided immune system attack on the protective sheath around nerve fibers in the spine and brain. Depending on where the damage occurs, symptoms include vision problems, muscle weakness, numbness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.

Most people with MS are initially diagnosed with the "relapsing-remitting" form, meaning that their symptoms flare up for a time and then ease.

Patients in this trial had progressive MS, where the disease steadily worsens without periods of recovery.

And while more than a dozen drugs are available to manage relapsing MS, there are few options for progressive forms of the disease, said Dr. Robert Fox, lead researcher on the new study.

In general, the drugs for relapsing MS do not work for people with progressive forms, said Fox, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

The biology of progressive MS, Fox explained, seems to be "fundamentally different." Inflammation drives relapsing MS, while the progressive forms seem to be driven by degeneration of nerve cells in the brain, following damage from the inflammatory phase.

Ibudilast can suppress inflammation, and it was first tested against relapsing MS -- where it failed to prevent relapses. But, Fox said, the drug did slow brain shrinkage (atrophy). And that led researchers to suspect it might help patients with progressive MS.

Fox and his colleagues recruited 255 patients with progressive MS from 28 U.S. medical centers. Patients were randomly assigned to take either ibudilast or placebo pills every day for 96 weeks.

Source : www.drugs.com

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