Study uncovers potential risks of common MS treatment

In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, University of British Columbia researchers found an increased risk of events such as stroke, migraine, and depression, as well as abnormalities in the blood with taking beta interferon for multiple sclerosis. Researchers hope their study will lead to further research to develop biomarkers to help identify patients who are at the greatest risk of having an adverse event.

The study’s authors aimed to identify potential adverse events related to beta-interferon treatment for relapsing-remitting MS by analyzing health records of more than 2,000 British Columbians with MS between 1995 and 2008.

The researchers found a 1.8-fold increased risk of stroke, a 1.6-fold increased risk of migraine, and a 1.3-fold increased risk of both depression and abnormalities in the blood. The researchers stress that patients and physicians should not change their treatment plans. The study is based on population-level data and the risk to individual patients will vary greatly depending on individual factors.

In addition to the negative effects, researchers found a reduced risk of bronchitis and upper respiratory infections with taking beta interferon for more than two years. These infections can be common and problematic in people with MS.

According to MSFocus Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Ben Thrower, “Beta interferon therapies have been a mainstay of MS treatment since 1993. This class of drugs includes Betaseron, Extavia, Rebif, Avonex, and Plegridy. This study points out the need to continue safety monitoring with all medications, even those that have been around a while. The study noted an increased risk of depression and migraine headaches in people with MS treated with beta interferons. In my experience, these medications do not cause depression or migraines, but may worsen them in individuals already affected by those conditions. Regular medical follow-up and blood testing is recommended for those on beta interferon therapy. The point of this study is not to scare anyone away from this class of drugs, but to point out the need for routine follow-ups and monitoring.”

The study was published in the journal Neurology.

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