Is There a Cure for Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord that affects nearly 1 million people in the United States. There is no cure for MS. However, medications called disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) can help prevent MS relapses and slow the disease down.

In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that insulates nerve fibers within the brain and spinal cord. As a result, nerve signaling is disrupted, which may result in symptoms like numbness, vision changes, weakness, and walking problems, among others.

This article will discuss MS discoveries and treatments that can help people with this potentially disabling disease.

Medical researcher works with samples in a laboratory

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How Close Is Science to Finding a Cure for MS?

There is tremendous hope that a cure for MS will be found one day. However, the timeline for putting an end to MS forever remains unknown.

As scientists throughout the world pursue a cure for MS, the National MS Society has named three goals, which are:

  • No MS disease activity: This goal involves stopping the disease (no more disease lesions or progression) in those who are already diagnosed with MS. A lesion is an area of MS-related inflammation or damage within the brain or spinal cord.
  • Reverse MS symptoms and disabilities: This goal involves finding treatments to repair myelin as well as lifestyle/rehabilitation strategies to restore normal functioning.
  • No new MS diagnoses: This goal involves eliminating or reducing risk factors in those who are vulnerable to developing MS. Risk factors are triggers or exposures that may increase your chances of developing a disease.

Research Progress

In their search for a cure, researchers dig deep to learn everything they can about MS. The good news is that much progress has been made. Examples of this progress include:

Triggers

Various factors have been identified that may make you more vulnerable to developing MS, including smoking, low vitamin D levels, and obesity in adolescence.

Research has also uncovered a possible connection between your gut microbiome (the organisms in your digestive tract) and MS development.

Lastly, around 200 genes have been identified that may contribute (typically on a small level) to MS risk.

Diagnosis

Advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to diagnose and monitor MS have been made. MRI involves the use of magnetic fields and radio waves to create three-dimensional images of the body's soft tissues.

Treatment/Rehabilitation

The emergence of targeted, highly effective DMTs has reduced the number and severity of relapses that people experience.

Moreover, the discovery of several compounds that can promote remyelination in animal models offers hope that function can be restored one day for people living with MS. Remyelination is the formation of new myelin sheaths around nerve fibers.

MS Treatment Options

DMTs are "big-picture" drugs. They work to decrease the number and severity of MS relapses and slow the disease down.

There are nine classes of DMTs available. The vast majority are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat relapsing forms of MS.

Relapsing MS includes:

  • Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS): This is the most common type of MS. In RRMS, people experience worsening neurological symptoms, or relapses, that eventually go away or improve.
  • Active secondary progressive MS: People with RRMS may transition to this type. They experience gradually worsening symptoms with occasional relapses.
  • Clinically isolated syndrome: This is a first-time episode of symptoms that does not yet meet the criteria for an official diagnosis of MS.

Some of the approved DMTs include:

  • Mavenclad (cladribine) is taken by mouth in two yearly treatment courses. It works by temporarily decreasing the number of immune system cells.
  • Vumerity (diroximel fumarate) is a pill taken twice daily by mouth that is believed to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
  • Bafiertam (monomethyl fumarate) is similar to Vumerity and is taken by mouth twice daily.
  • Ponvory (ponesimod), Mayzent (siponimod), and Zeposia (ozanimod) work by trapping white blood cells in the lymph nodes so they cannot enter the brain and spinal cord and attack myelin.
  • Kesimpta (ofatumumab) is an injectable DMT administered once monthly. It's a monoclonal antibody that targets B cells (infection-fighting cells) that have a specific CD20 marker on their surface.
  • Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) is an infused DMT administered once every six months. It works similar to Kesimpta but is approved to treat both relapsing MS and primary progressive MS.

DMTs Have Unique Safety Profiles

While some side effects of DMTs are unpleasant, others are more serious, like an increased risk of infection. Be sure to carefully discuss with your MS healthcare provider whether the potential benefits of the DMT you are considering outweigh any risks involved.

Emerging MS Treatments

Stem cell therapies and a drug called ibudilast are two emerging strategies for treating MS. Both of these therapies are experimental, meaning they are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating MS.

Stem Cell Therapies

Stem cells are self-replicating cells, or cells that have the unique ability to turn into multiple cell types (e.g., blood cells, nerve cells, fat cells, and bone cells). They are found in embryos and adults and are sometimes created in a laboratory. An autologous stem cell transplant uses the person's own stem cells.

Different stem cell therapies are being used or explored in MS care, including:

  • An autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant attempts to reboot a person's immune system using their own blood-forming stem cells. Research suggests this treatment is a potentially effective option for people with highly active relapsing-remitting MS not responding to DMTs.
  • An autologous mesenchymal stem cell transplant involves removing a person's own mesenchymal stem cells, modifying them in a laboratory, and injecting them back into their bloodstream or spinal canal. Mesenchymal stem cells are tissue-protecting/anti-inflammatory cells found throughout your body, including in your bone marrow, fat, and dental tissues.
  • An autologous induced pluripotent stem cell-derived transplantation involves taking a person's own cells (usually skin or blood), turning them into specialized cells (including cells that make myelin) in a laboratory, and re-introducing them back into the body.

Ibudilast

Ibudilast is an experimental oral medication that was found to slow the progression of brain shrinkage (compared to placebo) in people with primary or secondary progressive MS.

In the phase 2 clinical trial that revealed the above finding, no major safety issues were reported. However, the participants taking ibudilast did experience more depression and gastrointestinal-related side effects (e.g., nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting) than those taking placebo.

Ibudilast works by blocking an enzyme called phosphodiesterase and has been found to protect nerve cells from damage and encourage myelin repair. It's currently used in Asia as a treatment for asthma and post-stroke dizziness.

Enrolling in a Clinical Trial

Under the guidance of your MS healthcare provider, you might consider trying an experimental therapy within the context of a clinical trial. If interested, the National MS Society allows you to search for clinical trials in your state.

Summary

As of yet, there is no cure for MS. However, experts have made significant progress in learning about the disease and developing targeted, more effective disease-modifying therapies.

Current research focuses on reducing potential risk factors, stopping disease activity, and promoting myelin repair. Two experimental MS treatments on the horizon are stem cell therapies and the oral drug ibudilast.

A Word From Verywell

The recent knowledge gained about MS, and the advances made in treatment, are encouraging. They offer hope and are a potential step forward to finding a cure for MS.

As you remain devoted to your MS care, take heart in knowing that researchers continue to work tirelessly to find a cure. This entails keeping in touch with your healthcare team, taking your medication as prescribed, and engaging in healthy lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy weight.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you live a normal life with MS?

    MS is a complex disease, and its symptoms vary greatly from person to person. The good news is that with the right medical care, social support, healthy coping strategies, and a proactive attitude, many people with MS are able to live fulfilling, happy lives.

  • Can MS be stopped if caught early?

    There is no cure for MS; however, the disease can be slowed, and disability can be delayed. Also, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of MS with a DMT may put patients into long-term remission.

  • Can you reverse MS?

    MS cannot be reversed, but it can be managed. There are numerous disease-modifying drugs available that can help decrease both relapses and disease progression.

  • Can MS go away on its own?

    While some people with MS experience long periods of remission, MS is a chronic (lifelong) condition that will not go away on its own.

    One possible exception is those diagnosed with clinically isolated syndrome (a first-time episode of neurological symptoms). These individuals may or may not go on to develop MS.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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