July 5, 2004, Monday
EARLIER THIS year, Michael Bovingdon had become too ill to play ball with his three-year-old son; his limbs were stiffening, he was plagued by fatigue and the worsening of his symptoms was beginning to depress him.
However now, to his amazement, the 41-year-old farmer from Windsor is able to throw and catch a ball, even to play rounders, and has been able to stay up later than his usual 9pm bedtime.
He is one of hundreds of multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers who this year began regular injections of a new drug based on goat serum. Many of them have reported startling improvements in their condition. While the drug's manufacturers are reluctant to make any claims until clinical trials are complete, anecdotal evidence suggests that it not only eases symptoms, but may reverse damage wreaked by the disease.
Dozens of examples of huge improvements have been reported by patients and doctors. Among those claiming near-miraculous results is Alan Osmond, of the 1970s pop group the Osmond Brothers, who travelled from his home in the US to the UK to gain access to the serum.
The treatment has raised interest among those with MS and their families.
Thousands of sufferers not chosen to take part in the trials are clamouring for a chance to take the drug. The only side-effect reported has been occasional reddening of the skin at the injection site, and even this appears to happen only in the initial stages of treatment.
This month the results of tests carried out on six patients at the Wellington Hospital in North London have added to the excitement. In the observational study, sight problems, common in MS sufferers, were found to improve soon after treatment. As a study report says: "Within an hour of the injection, there was significant improvement in colour vision, and comparison of pre-treatment and follow-up data also showed significant benefit."
The drug, Aimspro, manufactured by the UK-based Daval International, is made from the purified serum (the liquid part of blood) taken from specially vaccinated goats bred in America.
It is reported to work for up to 85 per cent of patients, says Judy Graham, an MS sufferer who edits a specialist magazine, New Pathways, for the MS Resource Centre. "This means that they improve, from slightly to dramatically; it may also prevent or delay the progression of the disease. No one knows why it works for some people more than others."
Alan Osmond, 55, had MS diagnosed years ago and suffered numbness on his right side, sluggish eyesight and bladder and bowel problems. After the first treatment he noticed a dramatic improvement. "Right away I had more strength in my right side," he tells New Pathways. "Before the treatment you could easily have pushed my hand down. But after the treatment, you couldn't. Almost immediately I could walk faster, better, quicker. And at dinner that night I could cut the steak myself -something I haven't been able to do for around five years. My bladder improved and my mind felt fresher."
Over the next 48 hours he continued to feel better. "I went with my wife to a mall and was able to walk all the way round -before I had to get round in one of those electric carts. Also, I used to wear a leg brace because of foot drop and my knees used to buckle under me. Now I don't need the leg brace."
Dr Bryan Youl, consultant neurophysiologist at the Royal Free and National hospitals in London, is enthusiastic about the serum (he took part in the eyesight tests at the Wellington). "It seems to turn a switch and restore a level of conduction in damaged fibres," he says. "The MS world is littered with failed promises, but this looks promising indeed. Patients are showing signs of recovery in front of your eyes. I must emphasise that only with controlled trials can we say if it is of real long-term benefit."
Marion Thanisch, 43, who took part in the Wellington study, has been taking the serum for about three months. "I noticed an immediate effect -within three weeks my fatigue levels were improving and I no longer have to hang on to things while moving around. I really think they have cracked it with this drug."
Thanisch, an unmarried layout designer from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, adds: "My clarity of thought has improved and I can keep going through the day without hitting what I call the drop-out zone in the afternoon."
Dr Ian Brooman, meanwhile, a GP who has also been administering the serum to a small number of patients on an "informed consent basis", says: "It seems to have a very beneficial effect with no real side-effects."
Not everyone sees a dramatic improvement. Although Judy Graham is impressed by the many success stories she has uncovered, she cannot see that the drug has made any difference to her symptoms, although is less tired and can get more done in a day.
The MS Society says that it is awaiting the results of the trials, which are not expected until next year, before giving its verdict. A spokesman, David Harrison, says: "There are substantial anecdotal reports of people receiving benefits."
Daval International, meanwhile, has made Aimspro available to 150 people through their doctors on an "informed consent" basis, and 40 people are taking part in the main trial into the drug at the Atkinson Morley Wing of St George's Hospital Medical School in Tooting, South London (the consultant in charge of the trial is Dr David Barnes, a leading neurologist in the field of multiple sclerosis).
Back on his farm, Michael Bovingdon is euphoric. His wife, Melanie,
says that he has improved "in many ways. More than anything, his mood has
improved. He could be quite sour but now he is laughing again".
Copyright © 2004, Times Newspapers Limited