A drug commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol may make a profound difference for patients with advanced multiple sclerosis, early research suggests.

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A drug commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol may make a profound difference for patients with advanced multiple sclerosis, early research suggests.

There are currently no drugs to stop or slow the brain degeneration that happens in the late, "progressive" stage of multiple sclerosis.

In a study released late Tuesday by the journal Lancet, British researchers found that the statin drug simvastatin, sold under the brand name Zocor, seems to help slow brain shrinkage and restore some function to people with advanced MS.

Normal adult brains shrink by about 0.1% to 0.2% per year, while the brains of people with progressive MS shrink on average by 0.6% annually. In the study, the 70 people with progressive MS who took simvastatin saw brain shrinkage of about 0.3%, said Jeremy Chataway, who led the research. Patients and their doctors also reported improvements in function after two years on an 80-mg daily dose of the drug.

Chataway, a neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, said he was surprised that the drug appeared to be so effective.

"I work under the idea that nothing works in progressive MS," he said. "Myself and my collaborator Richard Nicholas, we were shocked."

The finding needs to be confirmed with a larger

Before the trial, it wasn't clear that it would be possible for people with progressive MS to recover any function, said Timothy Coetzee, chief research officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Coetzee said he was also impressed that a drug approved for a different purpose could be "repurposed" for MS. "It's really important proof and validation that this concept of repurposing therapies can be quite meaningful."

It makes biological sense, both Coetzee and Chataway said, that a drug that lowers cholesterol might help people with MS by protecting the brain against further damage.

"Neuroprotection is a hot area," Coetzee said. "This study will lend great credibility to why we need to continue to pursue that aggressively."

The challenge now will be to fund a large, expensive trial to confirm the early results. Because simvastatin is not protected by a patent, there's no incentive for a drug company to run a trial, Coetzee said. Chataway said he's hopeful he'll be able to raise enough between government and charitable funding.

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