Novartis study shows promise for oral MS therapy

Novartis AG (NVS) announced Wednesday that a two-year Phase III study involving more than 4,000 patients worldwide shows that a new drug significantly reduces relapses and disability progression of multiple sclerosis. The chronic, irreversible disease attacks the central nervous system and is characterized by symptoms ranging from numbness to blindness and paralysis. Eighty-five percent of MS patients have "relapsing-remitting MS," characterized by attacks -- relapses -- of worsening neurologic function.

Although MS has no cure, several strategies can modify the disease course, treat relapses, manage symptoms and improve function and safety. The Swiss drugmaker's FTY720 joins existing MS drugs including Biogen Idec (BIIB)'s Avonex, which reduces the risk of disability progression, exacerbations, and the number of lesions in the brain; Teva (TEVA)'s Copaxone, which also reduces relapse rate; and Elan (ELN)'s and Biogen Idec's Tysabri, which also reduces the risk of disability progression. The FDA recently amended the labeling of Tysabri to add information about incidences of a rare but sometimes fatal brain infection; on Tuesday, Elan received an SEC subpoena regarding its disclosure of two such cases.