Beta Interferon - Multiple Sclerosis Treatment
Beta interferon has been hailed by some multiple sclerosis patients as a miracle. But it is a miracle that has been dogged by controversy and accusations of drug rationing.
The three Beta interferon drugs licensed for use are Betaseron, Avonex and Rebif . Multiple Sclerosis is thought to be triggered when the immune system for some reason attacks the myelin sheath surrounding the nerve cells. Beta interferon works by obstructing the damaging white cells, so reducing the number of attacks and severity of symptoms in patients.
Clinical trials have shown the drug reduces the MS relapse rate by 30% over a two-year period. Magnetic resonance imaging has also shown that people on high doses of Beta interferon have less scarring on the brain than those on lower doses or a placebo.
The drug is not a cure for Multiple Sclerosis and until lately had been found to be only really effective in people with relapse-remitting MS. European research released in October 2004 revealed that patients with early symptoms of MS, given a weekly injection of Beta interferon, were less likely to develop more severe symptoms after two year follow up.
The study from ETOMS (early treatment of MS trial) showed that the drug lessened the loss of brain tissue compared to patients given a placebo.
In Britain the drug has always been surrounded by controversy. In 2001 The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) ruled that the drug was not cost effective and should not be provided on the National Health Service (NHS). The organization argued that the £10,000 a year cost for each patient would be better spent on other forms of MS treatment. This caused uproar among patient groups.
The row was eventually diffused when the government announced that the drug would be made available free to certain patients under a pioneering "risk share" scheme with the manufacturing drug companies. The manufacturers agreed to lower the cost of the drug if it failed to live up to expectations after a period of several years. It is only available on the NHS to treat relapse remitting patients and those who have secondary progressive MS in which the relapses are dominant. Only one in eight Multiple Sclerosis patients in the UK meet these criteria.
Under NICE guidelines the drug's effectiveness will be monitored on an annual basis. If the drug is not fully effective the NHS will receive a rebate from the manufacturing drug companies. The four manufacturers involved in the scheme are: Biogen http://www.biogen.com, Teva http://www.tevapharm.com, Schering http://www.schering.fi and Seronon http://www.serono.com.
Because of this controversial drug rationing, whether or not a patient receives Beta Interferon in the UK is a postcode lottery. The drug's cost and availability of funds in different health authority region mean the chances of being treated with beta interferon vary widely, depending on where a patient lives and the policy of the local hospital.
In a study published in the UK medical journal, The Lancet, researchers suggested that Beta interferon was effective in the first year but after two years the results were inconclusive and adverse side effects were common. Some patients have become very depressed after taking interferons, particularly Rebif. They can also cause flu like symptoms but these usually disappear over time.
In America the drug has been licensed to treat relapse-remitting MS since 1993. Depending on the level of health cover its use is normally paid for by insurance companies.