Let us now talk about some issues which come up when you are diagnosed with MS.
1) What happens next?
so you are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis what now? Do you need to start some multiple sclerosis drug immediately? This is a tough question and something which only your doctor can best decide after reviewing all investigations and MRI brain scans. Multiple sclerosis is in its typical form has a relapsing and remitting course. By that I mean, a patient may present with an acute attack of MS like weakness or unsteadiness or loss of vision in an eye (optic neuritis) but then the attack remits and the patient may come back to his or her baseline with at times no residual signs and symptoms. Then there may be a length of time when the patient experiences no fresh attacks. So the question is when do we start treating the disease. Research has shown that even though the patient may have no clinical attack (no overt manifestations of MS), the disease is still relentless and proceeding in the brain. How do we know this? Simple if you repeat the MRI in even an asymptomatic patient, the MRI shall show new lesions (meaning new plaques are seen in the brain MRI suggesting radiological progression of the disease).
Further research has also shown that these lesions (plaques) in the brain add up and contribute to the final disability. The more the number of plaques in the brain (we refer to this as the plaque burden), the more is the final disability and the cognitive difficulties experienced by the patient.
So now the thinking among MS specialists is to treat early and to treat aggressively. The longer you wait, the more is the damage to the myelin and axons (nerve bundles) in the brain. That said and done each patient’s disease behaves in a unique way. There are a small group of patients who have what is called as benign MS. These patients show little or no disease progression over years both clinically and radiologically. Why some patients have this benign form of the disease no one knows but remember it is very difficult if not impossible to know at the onset if a patient is going to have a benign form of MS or not. Hence usually MS specialists would recommend treating right from the onset.
2) Which interferon to use and which is better?
This is another issue which comes up during MS treatment. There are 3 different kinds of interferon available on the market: interferon beta 1b (marketed as Betaseron) and interferon beta 1a (marketed as Avonex and Rebiff). Without going too much into detail, there is some evidence to suggest that interferon beta 1 b (Betaseron) may be more effective than interferon beta 1a (Avonex).
Betaseron has to be given three times a week (every alternate day) and it has to be injected subcutaneously (under the skin). Avonex on the other hand needs to be given just once a week and it is given intramuscular (inside the muscle and thus more painful shot than a subcutaneous shot). That said and done since Avonex is given once a week it is far more convenient and does not interfere with a patient’s lifestyle as compared to something which needs to be given three times a week.
There is also the issue of neutralizing antibody formation. Simply put it has been seen that if someone takes interferon for a long time, the body starts to form antibodies against it. These antibodies have been referred to as neutralizing antibodies and if a patient has a high titre of these antibodies, it may neutralize the effect of the interferon (meaning make the interferon less effective). Some research has shown the patient’s who take Betaseron develop neutralizing antibodies at a higher rate as compared to those on Avonex or Rebiff. Again your doctor shall guide you through this decision making process.