Patients would welcome an oral treatment, doctors say
Oral drugs to treat multiple sclerosis could become available in 2011 after promising results in two trials.
Drug licences have been applied for and the MS Society said it was "great news" for people with MS - current treatments involve injections or infusions.
The trials of the drugs each involved 1,000 people in over 18 countries, the New England Journal of Medicine says.
Cladribine and fingolimod, which come as tablets, cut relapse rates by 50-60% over two years compared with placebos.
Fingolimod was also tested against the widely used injection, beta interferon 1a. The trial showed the new drug was twice as effective in reducing the number of relapses over a year.
Multiple sclerosis is the most common disabling neurological disorder affecting young adults. It affects more than 100,000 people in the UK and 2.5 million worldwide.
Symptoms include mobility problems, lack of bladder and bowel control and and blurred vision.
The downside of current treatments is that they have to be injected or given by infusion.
MS sufferers have long hoped a pill would be developed. Pharmaceutical companies have been competing to get there first.
Dr Doug Brown, Biomedical Research Manager at the MS Society, said: "This is great news for people with MS and signifies a shifting tide in the treatment of the condition.
"Availability of oral therapies will give people greater choice and being able to take a tablet instead of unpleasant injections will come as welcome relief.
"The evidence is now there and we will be working with the relevant authorities to make sure those who will benefit can get access."
Doctors have also welcomed the studies.
Dr Belinda Weller, a consultant neurologist based in Edinburgh who specialises in MS, said the findings are "very significant" and indicated "a big breakthrough".
"This is the first major advance in MS therapy for a few years," she said. "I hope the drugs will soon be licensed."
But she expressed concerns both about possible side effects - which the trials suggested could include an increased risk of herpes and cancer - and that the new drugs could push up the cost of treating MS.
"More patients are likely to want to use these new drugs," she said. "Some people shun the currently available treatments because of the need to inject. This could put pressure on hospital budgets."
The MS Society called on the drug companies to price the drugs reasonably.
"The evidence is now here and we hope to see the pharmaceutical companies price these drugs responsibly so they can be made available to people with MS."