Three types of drugs are currently approved to treat multiple sclerosis. Copaxone and the beta interferons are used to treat relapsing-remitting disease which, in half of these patients, progresses to a "secondary progressive," or chronic, form -- and Novatrone, a cancer chemotherapy, is used to treat this progressive form. The drugs are effective to varying degrees in roughly a third of patients and are often limited by side effects or toxicities. Statins, by contrast, are relatively well tolerated and generally safe.
Currently, another statin, simvastatin (Zocor), is being tested in a small trial of early relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.
It's possible, says Zamvil, that statins could prove useful in combination with these drugs, as they act through different molecular mechanisms.
A broad attack on autoimmune diseases
More broadly, Zamvil says, statins could prove effective against certain other auto-immune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile diabetes, which occur when the same form of the immune system CD4+ T cell turns against the body. In fact, he says, it's possible that the drugs' anti-inflammatory properties actually contribute to the protective effects of statins in heart disease and stroke that traditionally have been attributed to LDL cholesterol reduction.
If statins do prove useful in treating autoimmune diseases, it won't be the first time that a widely used drug has been found to have an effect in multiple medical conditions, notes Stanford's Steinman. He cites aspirin, which, among other conditions, relieves joint pain, helps to prevent stroke and heart attack, and, as recently recognized, may
Contact: Jennifer OBrien
University of California - San Francisco