Mixed messages about beta-interferon safety to treat MS

Research that is meaningful is essential. It is what, after all, what we need to find a cure for multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases.

However, a new study from the University of British Columbia, Canada, puzzles me. The study “Evaluating the safety of beta-interferons in MS” looked at potential adverse events when treating relapsing remitting MS (RRMS).

When the findings were published in Neurology, they came with a strangely conflicting narrative.

Let me explain.

Increased risk

The study found an increased risk of events such as stroke, migraine and depression, as well as abnormalities in the blood, when beta-interferon is taken for MS. The team discovered this by analysing the health records of more than 2,000 British Columbians with MS between 1995 and 2008.


Professor Helen Tremlett.

So, that’s not so good. But Professor Helen Tremlett, senior author of the study, said that beta-interferons have a favourable safety profile, especially compared to the newer therapies for MS. And she added: “That is still the case; our study does not change that.

“However, very few studies had comprehensively and quantitatively assessed their safety in real world clinical practice. Our findings complement and extend on previous observations.”

Tremlett is a Professor in the department of medicine at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre in Brain Health. She also said: “Once a drug is released on the market, there are very few ways to systematically monitor adverse events. 

“Clinical trials cannot identify all adverse effects of a drug treatment partly due to small sample sizes and relatively short follow-up periods.”

Beta-interferon research undermined?

So, the study shows that people taking beta-interferon for MS are at great risk of having a stroke, migraine and depression, as well as abnormalities in the blood. But they stress that patients and physicians should not change their treatment plans. They say that the risk to individual patients will vary greatly depending on individual factors.

To me that attitude, of ‘yes, the risks are greater but never mind’, devalues the results. In fact, to my mind, it undermines the whole study. The question I must ask is: why waste money on research if you are going to go against the results?

On the plus side, besides the negative effects, Tremlett and her colleagues made a positive discovery. They 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 for people living with multiple sclerosis.

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at 50shadesofsun.com with other companies and products. Read more.

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50shadesofsun.com is the personal website of Ian Franks, a Features Writer with Medical News Today. He has enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor, in the print media. During that career he gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Diagnosed with MS in 2002, he continued to work until mobility problems made him retire early in late 2006. He now lives in the south of Spain. Besides MS, Ian is also able to write about both epilepsy and cardiovascular matters from a patient’s perspective. Besides that, he is a keen advocate on mobility and accessibility issues.


One thought on “Mixed messages about beta-interferon safety to treat MS

  1. Typical big pharma downplaying the potentially radical negative side effects of the drug they want you to spend big bucks on. We are initially desperate to try anything to keep the disease at bay and forget the long term ramifications as we go on in years. They should be ashamed. Shout it out and let people know.


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