Statins could offer a new avenue for treating advanced multiple sclerosis - a condition for which there are currently limited options - suggest findings of a mid-stage UK study.

A research team led by University College London found that a high dose of the cholesterol lowerer simvastatin significantly reduced the rate of brain shrinkage - by about 40% - in patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS).

Around 100,000 people in the UK have MS, and there is no cure. At about 10-15 years into the disease, at least half of patients will become secondary progressive, a stage characterised by greater disability and gradual worsening of the condition.

Lead author Jeremy Chataway noted that for the earlier, relapsing-remitting form of MS (RRMS) there are now about a dozen treatments after all the clinical trials over the last 20 years, "but sadly for SPMS there are few disease modifying treatments". 

"We hope this might be the start of finding an effective treatment for this stage of the disease," he said, adding that the findings, which have now been published in The Lancet following a peer review, provide "an exciting platform that needs to be taken into a late Phase III trial to see if the drug has a sustained effect on disability over a three-year period". 

Simvastatin 'ideal' candidate

Simvastatin, he added, is an "ideal candidate drug for treating secondary MS - not just because of the results of this study, and because of it’s well known safety profile, but also it is a re-purposed drug which may have a significant impact on reducing costs and increasing the chances of starting a Phase III trial.”

Susan Kohlhaas, Head of Biomedical Research at the MS Society, said it is "very exciting" that scientists have found a potential treatment that could slow disease worsening in patients with SPMS.

“Further, larger clinical trials are now absolutely crucial to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this treatment, but for now, people with MS should be really encouraged by these results," she noted.