Interferons in multiple sclerosis. A review of the evidence.

  • Panitch H
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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, characterised clinically by relapses and remissions, and leading eventually to chronic disability. Despite an enormous amount of research, the cause of MS remains unknown; however, pathological, genetic, and immunological features have been identified that suggest the disease has an autoimmune basis. Accordingly, current therapy of MS includes corticotrophin or corticosteroids for acute exacerbations, and more potent immunosuppressive drugs for severe cases unresponsive to steroids. All of these agents can cause serious adverse reactions. There is an urgent need for immunotherapy that is less toxic, that can be given early and perhaps indefinitely, and that will prevent relapses and progression of the disease. Our current knowledge of the effects of interferons (IFNs) in MS is based on the results of laboratory research and clinical therapeutic trials carried out over the past decade. Existing evidence points to the conclusion that the effects of the IFNs in MS are mediated by immunoregulatory rather than antiviral or nonspecific mechanisms. Administration of IFN gamma increases the exacerbation rate, and IFN gamma as well as other cytokines may be involved in the pathogenesis of MS lesions. In contrast, studies of IFN beta show that it tends to inhibit the activity of IFN gamma and appears to prevent disease activity. Intrathecal administration of IFN beta, although effective, is cumbersome and potentially hazardous. A large multicentre placebo-controlled trial of systemic recombinant IFN beta was recently conducted in the US, and the results of the first 2 years of treatment were considered sufficiently encouraging that an application for licensing was submitted to the Food and Drug Administration in June 1992. If approved, it will be the first new agent licensed for clinical use in MS in over 20 years. The study will continue under double-blind conditions for at least another year, and a second trial of systemic recombinant IFN beta therapy is also in progress. These studies should provide definitive answers to questions about the role of IFNs in the pathogenesis of MS, as well as the place of recombinant IFN beta as an effective therapeutic agent.

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  • H S Panitch

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