World-first trial for patients with progressive MS launched in the UK

Researchers at University College London say study could transform how patients are treated

A doctor from University College London works with multiple sclerosis patient Ailsa Guidi. Photo: MS Society
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Scientists in Britain have launched the world's first ever clinical trial for patients suffering from progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), which they say could transform the way treatments for the condition are tested.

The trial, called Octopus, is being conducted by researchers from University College London and could work three times faster than a traditional study.

It will test several drugs at once and use MRI scans to see if the medicines have the potential to protect the nerves of MS patients.

Drugs that do not look promising can be dropped from the trial, cutting the overall testing time, scientists say.

Millions of people around the world suffer from a progressive form of MS known as Late MS — Secondary Progressive MS (SPMS).

The condition, which affects the majority of MS patients, often develops 10 to 15 years after a diagnosis of the relapsing form of MS.

It is caused by degeneration of the nerves in the brain, something that occurs more rapidly than in other neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Participants are now being screened at the first clinical trial site in London, but other locations are expected to open in major cities across the country.

UCL says its multi-arm, multi-stage study is the culmination of several years of work by scientists who have reviewed and ranked treatments according to their potential.

Researchers say they decided to focus on drugs used to treat other conditions that have shown the potential to protect patients' nerves.

The trial team specifically selected R/S alpha lipoic acid, which has been used to treat conditions such as diabetic neuropathy, and metformin, used to treat type 2 diabetes, as the first two drugs to be tested in the “arms” of Octopus.

Jeremy Chataway of the Institute of Neurology, who is leading the trial, said multi-arm, multi-stage studies have been “utterly transformative” in other conditions, and can now be applied to aid MS sufferers.

“Ultimately, Octopus will lead to more treatments for progression becoming available to people living with MS sooner,” he said.

“Getting to this stage has been an incredible effort of people up and down the country.

“The other large trial I am the chief investigator for, MS-STAT2, has shown we can run large-scale, nationwide trials for progressive MS. Now we’re taking it to the next level, as we start a new journey to develop treatments for progressive MS.”

The same approach used in Octopus was deployed to alter how men with prostate cancer are treated. The study took only 15 years compared with the more than 50 years it would have typically taken.

Ailsa Guidi, 47, who has suffered with MS for more than two decades, says being accepted into the trial has given her hope for the future.

“I feel excited that I’m joining a long line of people who have helped progress MS research,” she said.

“Octopus has the potential to find treatments for people, like me, living with progressive MS — it’s given me hope.”

Updated: April 05, 2023, 5:48 PM