Never Before Seen Hope for People with Multiple Sclerosis

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Great news for the more than half a million Americans with multiple sclerosis: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just approved a new drug that far exceeds other MS drugs. One doctor described it like the difference between a cell phone and a land line.

Just ask Rebecca Cherubini.  She has been struggling with multiple sclerosis for 15 years. 

“I surrendered it to God,” she said, “I’m like, ‘If this is your will, I would love for you to change it. But if not, ok, then you need to give me the grace to deal.'”

Like most people with MS, Cherubini’s came out of the blue when she was young. 

“Blurred vision to the point where I started to become nervous about my driving,” she recalled. “And then one day I was actually going to work and I pulled off.”

In addition to vision problems, other symptoms include fatigue, trouble walking and difficulty thinking. 

MS is an autoimmune disease. That’s when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.  In the case of M.S., the immune system attacks the outer portion of nerves in the brain and the spinal cord.  It gets worse over time, and there is no cure.

“I want to be able to drive my kids to soccer,” Cherubini said. “I don’t want to be debilitated. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair.”

Now, Cherubini may get her wish.  She’s one of dozens of MS patients at the Ohio State Medical Center to test a new drug called Ocrelizumab.  

The medicine works to stop the cells in the immune system from attacking the central nervous system.  It’s clearly effective. It’s been shown to stop the disease in its tracks — not just the more common “relapsing” form of MS, but also the most aggressive type, called “primary progressive.” 

“Ocrelizamab was the first medication for primary progressive MS that actually worked,” said Dr. Michael Racke, a neurologist at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center who has been treating MS patients for 30 years.

He says patients call it a game-changer.

“They say, ‘You know, I really haven’t had any kinds of effects from my MS,’ and that’s really obviously quite satisfying as an MS physician who can remember the days when we really didn’t have anything to treat patients,” he said.

Cherubini told Dr. Racke she’s delighted the drug has stopped the progression of her disease.

“I feel normal again. I was telling him, I just feel normal,” she said.

Ocrelizumab is not like other MS drugs, such as the pills that have to be taken daily or the shots that come three times a week.  It only involves an infusion, which typically lasts four hours, every six months. 

“This medicine, I don’t have to worry about it,” Cherubini said. “I don’t have to take it every day. I don’t have to worry about ordering it. I don’t have to worry about any reactions to it.” 

Ocrelizamab costs $65,000 a year, which believe it or not, is less than many of the leading MS drugs. 

And while this breakthrough can stop the progression of MS, doctor still don’t know what causes the disease, so prevention remains a mystery.

“If you look at identical twins, when one twin gets MS, 70 percent of the time the other identical twin, who clearly has the same genetics as their brother or sister, doesn’t get MS,” explained Dr. Racke.

Since MS is an inflammatory disease, things that cause inflammation, such as obesity, stress and smoking, could factor-in.  Early studies show vitamin D might help prevent it.

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