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Tackling multiple sclerosis with anti-psychotics

A New Zealand medical researcher has had significant success in early stage research fighting multiple sclerosis with anti-psychotic drugs. Now she is looking for funding for further trials

Imagine waking up every day, knowing a disease is damaging nerves in your brain so that eventually you may not be able to see or walk. For 4000 New Zealanders (one in every 1,400) multiple sclerosis is a daily struggle, with treatment options barely scratching the surface of the different cases of the neurological disease.

For many of these sufferers, the nerve damage in their body is unique and traditional methods of medication are ineffective, particularly for those with progressive stages of MS.

Now a New Zealand researcher at the forefront of research into multiple sclerosis is looking for several million dollars of investor money to fund stage two clinical trials into repurposing well-known anti-psychotic drugs to combat MS.

Victoria University associate professor Anne La Flamme’s research, published by international scientific journal PLOS ONE this month, shows that drugs risperidon and clozapine can reduce the inflammation in the brain that causes MS, impacting significantly on the disease’s effect.

La Flamme is the head of the multiple sclerosis research programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, an independent medical research organisation based at Victoria University. She is working with around seven PhD and postgraduate researchers from the University.

Anne La Flamme (pictured, right, with PhD student Madeleine White) will need to go overseas for funding if her work on multiple sclerosis gets to stage two trial stage

Until now the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand has funded this research through the Malaghan Institute. And New Zealand’s Douglas Pharmaceuticals is committed to supplying the drugs for the trial, which could almost halve the cost.

But La Flamme says she will need significant investment to proceed with clinical trials.

“We need investment of several million dollars for the phase two trial. It probably won’t be held in New Zealand just simply because we don’t have the numbers with the disease needed for a trial.”

There are about 4000 New Zealander diagnosed with MS.

La Flamme says she and her colleagues approached the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Science and Innovation branch for funding for the trial, but that was largely unsuccessful.

“They’re interested, but they really don’t like clinical trials because they’re not certain.”

Anne Barnett, senior commercialisation manager at Victoria University’s commercialisation arm Viclink, says the university has a basic intellectual property policy where any benefits that come out of a project fall back to the original inventors, their school they work in and the university.

She says the licensing agreement that is set up by Viclink between inventors and possible investors, means they can have access to any pre-clinical information that underpins their efforts.

“We will need significant investment to move to a phase two trial, which means we need to go offshore to look for partners to work with.”

La Flamme is positive about the progress they’re making in the area and says New Zealand drug buying agency Pharmac has recently changed its criteria for funding relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis, which adds to the advances in MS treatment. 

“This is fantastic. We know Pharmac can’t spend their whole budget on a small group of people, but these changes are making some treatment much more accessible.”

La Flamme says her research could be something that is commercially viable, but that won’t be seen until trials are carried out. However, because risperidon and clozapine have been around for decades, treating depression and schizophrenia, they will be much easier to access for trials.

“We know how they work.

“They are now in generic form, which is easy to access for patients.”

For now the peer review and publishing of her work means the team can move into a small phase one trial of the drug in MS patients.

 “The trial will look at what dose would be appropriate and whether we are going to find huge problems.”

La Flamme says at this stage they are looking to more traditional academic sources of funding, talking with pharmaceutical companies at conferences about possible trials. Getting her peer-reviewed work published in PLOS ONE is an integral part of that.

“It’s important to back up the science. We chose PLOS ONE because the information, once published, is immediately and freely accessible to anyone who wants to read it.

At this stage, La Flamme says they are also having productive talks with the National MS Society in the US about funding a trial.

Review overview