MS patients’ cancer risk likely to have been increased by older immunosuppressants, says study

People with multiple sclerosis are more likely to develop cancer if they have used immunosuppressants than if they haven’t, according to a new study. I knew it was right to have a healthy disrespect for certain MS treatments.

The study cites older types of immunosuppressant treatments, less likely to be used today. Also, it indicates that a supposed link between MS and cancer may come from those older types treatments. So, not the disease itself.

The study, “Association between multiple sclerosis, cancer risk, and immunosuppressant treatment: a cohort study”, was published in the journal BMC Neurology. 

Disease-modifying treatments, today, target selected immune system cells, but immunosuppressant drugs are not so choosy. They take out an entire spectrum of immune cells and, researchers discovered, permanently change activity of cancer-causing genes.

Cancer linked to older MS treatments

To conduct the study, University of Palermo, Italy, researchers looked at 531 people with MS who had used the therapies. The research team recruited 531 MS patients who had never been treated with immunosuppressants, as  controls. Researchers compared both groups to people of the same age in the general population.

Key findings were:

  • The researchers found the risk of the immunosuppressant group developing cancer was 11 times higher than untreated patients.
  • Gut cancers, breast cancer, and leukemia were the most common types among these patients.
  • Those who took azathioprine and mitoxantrone were four times more likely to develop cancer than other patients.
  • Patients treated for a longer time were at higher risk than those treated for a short time.
  • MS patients who had never been treated with the older drugs did not have higher cancer rates than the general population.

Researchers say doctors should watch for cancer in patients treated with immunosuppressants.

This new research does not involve any modern MS disease modifying therapies, but it would be wrong for me not to remind you that no drug treatment is without risk of side effects.

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at with other compand products. Read more.

* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a Features Writer with Healthline, the fastest growing health information site. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a whd advocates on mobility and accessibiliies.

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