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Monday, 25 September, 2000, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Beta interferon case boosted by research
Beta inferon injection
Interferon injections could hold back the disease
The pressure for multiple sclerosis drug beta-interferon to be made available on the NHS will be heightened by new research.

The publication, on Wednesday, of the clinical study in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes as final appeals are completed into a potential NHS ban for the drug.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), the governmental body charged with deciding whether treatments represent value for money, will make a final recommendation in the next few weeks.

But the new journal report is thought to suggest that the earlier MS patients are given substantial amounts of beta interferon, the greater the benefits are.

There have been other studies suggesting that the drug can reduce the number and frequency of relapses that can leave MS sufferers progressively more disabled.

However, it costs approximately 10,000 a year to keep a patient on the drug.

The MS Society of Great Britain is fighting for Nice to reverse its earlier proposal not to give beta interferon to newly-diagnosed MS patients.

'Modest clinical benefit"

Nice proposed at the end of August that beta interferon should be banned on cost grounds.

Its chairman, Professor Michael Rawlins, said that the "modest clinical benefit" of the drug appeared to be outweighed by the high price.

An appeal from patient groups, the Royal College of Nursing and drug companies against that proposal was completed on Saturday.

While the latest research, which shows a dramatic decrease in frequency of relapses when high doses are given soon after diagnosis, has not yet been fully published, many neurologists now believe this is the way to get the most benefit from the drug.

Professor Lance Blumhardt, from the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham, told the Times newspaper: ""Evidence from the trials shows we can stop the disease in its tracks right at the outset."

A consensus meeting held in Paris a fortnight ago was told that while it was traditionally thought that patients with a milder, "relapsing remitting", form of the disease would benefit, those benefits could in theory now be extended to those with primary progressive MS, in which disability constantly increases.

Nice is not expected to reveal whether or not the appeals have succeeded for at least a week.

David Harrison, a spokesman for the MS Society, told BBC News Online: "There is an increasing body of opinion that giving this treatment early can reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.

"Once it's established that someone has MS it's important that they get the treatment."

MS is a disease in which the body's own immune system attacks the sheaths surrounding delicate nerve cells in the spine and brain.

This leads to difficulty sending nerve messages, which can lead to disability. There is at present no treatment which can cure the disease, or reverse the effects of its attacks.

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See also:

25 Jan 00 | Health
MS drug 'not worth the money'
30 Nov 98 | Medical notes
Multiple sclerosis
10 Dec 99 | Health
MS drug 'should be restricted'
11 Jul 00 | Health
MS drug 'cheaper than care'
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