More than 400,000 Americans have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic, often progressive and potentially disabling disease. Yet researchers are making strides toward better understanding the disease, and several promising new medications are in the pipeline.

    “I’m very hopeful,” says Dr. Anne Cross, a neurologist with Washington University Physicians and director of the John L. Trotter MS Center. Cross has been involved in MS treatment and research since 1984 and saw the first MS medications introduced in 1994. “We’ve been able to see how today’s medications are better than what we could offer before, and I’m hoping to see the next era of medications provide even better treatment of the disease and its symptoms.”

    MS can cause a variety of debilitating neurological problems ranging from numbness in the extremities to paralysis and loss of vision. The disease’s progression and severity is variable and unpredictable. “There are currently six FDA-approved drugs, and a number of drugs likely to be approved in the next two to three years,” Cross says. “For instance, for patients who don’t like injections or infusions, which is the delivery method for some of the most effective drugs we have now, an oral medication may soon become available.”

    One example of the new generation of medications is the experimental drug Alemtuzumab. “This drug is an infusion that appears to stop the disease in some patients,” Cross says. “It’s more effective, but it also carries more risks because it’s a very strong immunosuppressant and can increase the risk of other types of autoimmune problems, like autoimmune platelet disruption and thyroid problems.”

    Cross is also encouraged by current genetics and imaging research. Her research group provides blood samples from local MS patients to an international research consortium studying the genetic aspects of the disease. She is also working with researchers at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology on studies of magnetic resonance imaging that could be used in new ways to help physicians track MS progression and monitor treatment efficacy.

    Dr. Florian Thomas, a SLUCare neurologist and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Centers at Saint Louis University and the St. Louis VA Medical Center, shares Cross’ optimism. “The goal is to find medications that are easier to use, in that they can be taken by mouth and have similar or better efficacy and safety than what is currently available,” he says.

        Thomas and his research team are on the front lines of some of the most important studies of new medications. “We have been involved in research of some of the currently approved drugs for MS, such as Betaseron and Rebif, as well as studies of innovative forms of exercise and physical therapy for MS,” he says.

    “We are also examining whether two currently approved drugs, Copaxone and Avonex, are more effective when taken in combination than alone,” he adds. “And we are studying three drugs that can be taken by mouth in established or early forms of MS, specifically Laquinimod, Teriflunamide and BG00012/Fumarate. Of these, the latter two studies remain open for enrollment to people with MS that meet the entry criteria.”

    For information about these and other clinical trials, as well as a variety of other information about multiple sclerosis, go to “We serve approximately 6,000 people living with MS in our 90-county service area, which covers about two-thirds of Missouri, as well as southern Illinois,” says Beth Norviel, director of communications for the National MS Society’s Gateway Area Chapter. The organization provides support for people who have multiple sclerosis, as well as their families and their caregivers.