January 13, 2003
The Associated Press
Fletcher Allen Health Care and the University of Vermont College of Medicine are participating in research into whether a new drug can help fight multiple sclerosis.
The hospital is one of 100 sites worldwide testing the efficacy of an anticipated new drug called Antegren. The College of Medicine, which is affiliated with Fletcher Allen, received research funding for the work.
Early this month, scientists published results from a previous round of tests on Antegren that showed patients who took the drug developed dramatically fewer brain lesions caused by MS than patients who took a placebo. The brain lesions can eventually lead to the disabilities associated with the disease.
Seven MS patients at Fletcher Allen are taking Antegren on top of an existing drug called Avonex. Doctors, including Fletcher Allen’s Hillel Panitch, hope the combination of Antegren and Avonex will reduce MS symptoms and delay disabilities in the later stages of the disease.
“At one time, the later stages were pretty much inevitable,” said Panitch, who has studied MS for more than two decades. “After 25 years, 90 percent of patients would go on to secondary progressive, which means they would need to have a cane to walk or worse.”
At least two out of every three patients diagnosed with MS are women, said Panitch. The disease is significantly more prevalent in colder climates, such as the northern United States and northern Europe, according to the National MS Society.
An estimated 1,500 Vermonters living with MS, according to the Vermont division of the MS Society. The Green Mountain State has one of the highest rates of MS in the nation, Panitch said.
MS sufferers in the early stage of the disease experience acute attacks when the disease’s symptoms erupt.
The attacks can include ringing in the ears, numbness, and balance and vision problems.
Panitch said tests show patients have sometimes had MS for years before being diagnosed. The symptoms may have seemed minor causing patients to ignore them.
Dee Hughlett woke up one Saturday morning in the summer of 1986 to find that her right leg was numb.
Elizabeth Cunningham woke up one New Year’s Day with no feeling in her left hand.
Within 24 hours of their first symptoms, Hughlett and Cunningham’s problems had worsened. The numbness had spread through the right side of Hughlett’s body and across Cunningham’s left side.
Both would learn the temporary discomfort was brought on by a disease that causes the immune system to turn against the body and attack the central nervous system, particularly the brain.
In the mid-1990s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first MS drugs to treat the disease as opposed to its symptoms. Among them was Avonex, made by Biogen, the Cambridge, Mass. company that is also testing Antegren.
Hughlett believes the drug has improved her life.
Since she began the drug in 1996, she has only had one attack serious enough to send her to a doctor.
“So I’ve only had to deal with MS a couple of times,” she said. The rest of the time she is mothering her three children.
MS has taken more of a toll on Cunningham.
She left her full-time job as a bank teller in Middlebury to work part-time. She takes naps daily to cope with fatigue.
“I can still do most everything, but it just takes longer,” Cunningham said.
Hughlett and Cunningham spend one afternoon a month at the University Health Center participating in the drug trial.
They wanted to do it, they said, because it could help advance treatment
of MS. A new drug could help them and others cope with the disease.
© 2003 Rutland Herald