The development of new drugs for multiple sclerosis (MS) is a long and difficult process.
MS is a very active area of research. New treatments are coming through and established ones are being improved. This gives lots of hope for the future.
What are the key areas of research?
If scientists could work out who was more likely to get MS, what the trigger factors were and how to stop them, then perhaps a pill, a supplement or a particular lifestyle would be all that was needed to prevent MS. Many conditions seemed difficult to research many years ago but we now know how to prevent them.
Scientists are trying to understand how MS is triggered and who is more likely to get the condition. It seems to be a complex story where at least 100 genes and a range of environmental factors interact. The biology underlying MS is complicated and it may be some time before MS can be prevented.
Perhaps the next best thing would be to cure MS. If it can’t be prevented, it would be best to cure it as soon as it was diagnosed. Again, the complex biology of MS makes this a tough research question. It will probably need many pieces of work to come together, like a jigsaw, before MS is understood well enough for scientists to design a cure.
Progress has been made in this area. Although relapses are rarely stopped completely, their number and impact can be decreased by taking a disease modifying drug (DMD). There’s plenty more research to be done. Ideally relapses would be eliminated, treatments would be easy to administer, not taken so often and have no side effects or risks.
Stopping progression is important as increasing disability can have an impact on your quality of life. This has proved a difficult area to research and, so far, there isn’t anything which will stop progression completely. Some of the disease modifying drugs can slow down progression through their effect on decreasing relapses. There are recent clinical trials which have tested experimental drugs in people with progressive MS which are showing promising results.
Repairing the damage caused by MS
Some researchers are looking at repairing the damage already caused by MS so that the various systems of the body can work better again. The prime targets are the immune system and the nervous system. This research is still at an early stage.
A healthy brain can compensate for some of the damage caused by MS by rerouting signals or adapting healthy areas to take on new functions. Researchers are looking at which lifestyle changes can help your brain stay healthy and retain the maximum capacity to remember, learn, plan and concentrate so you can maintain a clear, active mind.
Better treatments for the symptoms of MS would improve everyday life. Research is continuing to find new treatments as well as to improve existing ones. Research areas include:
- drugs, like more effective painkillers.
- stem cell therapies, which aim to reset or replace the faulty immune system
- phsyiotherapies and self management techniques, such as using Pilates to strengthen core body muscles or brain training techniques for memory difficulties.
- lifestyle habits, like adopting specific exercise regimes or making changes in diet.
At the moment, not every treatment works for everyone so you sometimes have to try several to find out which one, or which combination, works best for you. Research into personalised medicine investigates what underlies this variability including genetic and environmental factors. In the future, treatment could be tailored to the individual resulting in a faster and more effective response.
Improving everyday life
Research can look at how people live well with their MS and what minimises any effect on their lives, relationships and social lives. Similarly, how do friends, family and the wider community interact with someone with MS? What is most helpful for everybody? This kind of research can be very general and descriptive but can give a good insight into how to live life to the full.
Why does research take so long?
Research can seem like a very slow process. You may see an item on the news announcing a scientific breakthrough but it may be years before it makes a difference to someone with MS. The reasons for this include:
- Research usually proceeds in stages and only if something gets through one stage, will it go on to the next one.
- Sometimes the research has only been done in animals, or in the laboratory, and still needs to be tested in humans. There's no guarantee that the results will be the same.
- Some tests take a long time, for example, a clinical trial of a disease modifying drug has to recruit many participants, give them the drug for at least a couple of years and then analyse a large amount of data to see what the effects were. This can easily add up to three or four years.
- The results aren't what was hoped for so the study has to be redesigned, or be abandoned.
- There are licenses or other approvals which have to be gained before a treatment can be made available outside the research study.
How can I tell good research from hype?
The most important thing is to use reliable sources of information like the MS Trust. Other sources may sound very convincing but may just be opinion, or someone’s personal experience, presented as if they were facts that will apply to everyone.
Watch out for anyone who says that they can cure MS. At present, there is no cure. Also, be careful of people selling treatments or supplements and don’t buy anything which doesn’t come from a trusted supplier as the alternative treatments market is poorly regulated.
It can be tempting to try an experimental or controversial treatment but the risks of harm, significant side effects and high costs should be considered. Try not to be pressured into something by well-meaning friends or family. If in doubt, have a chat with your MS nurse or GP.
Do your own research
If you find a topic of interest, do further research on the websites of the main MS charities. If there’s been a breakthrough, they will be reporting it too. If they’ve not reported it, or have a different take on the research, then consider what is being said very carefully. Look to see if the research is at an early stage as it may be a while before it becomes available to everyone and it may not get to that stage at all.
These questions can help you find out if there is any good evidence behind the claims:
- Have the results been independently researched and repeated by another group of scientists?
- Has the study been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal?
- What do other experts in the field say?
- Has there been a clinical trial?
- Is the treatment licensed? What is it licensed for?
What's hot in MS research?
The MS Trust provides information about the latest research in MS. You could:
- Read the research update pages in our free newsletter, Open Door. You can sign up to receive Open Door by post or by email.
- Read our weekly research update which highlights new publications in the medical and scientific journals. One topic is explored in depth each week. You can also sign up to receive the research update weekly email alert.
- Read about new treatments being developed
- Read about the pros and cons of getting involved in clinical research trials yourself
- Read about research funded by the MS Trust
As research is a fast moving topic, much of our information is only available online. If you would prefer, you can also contact the Information Team and they can send you the information you would like.
Last updated: October 2017
Last reviewed: September 2017
This page will be reviewed within three years