A drug that is already widely used to control high blood pressure could also have benefits for people suffering from multiple sclerosis, according to a new study.
Researchers studied laboratory mice who had brain lesions similar to those found in humans with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain, often causing blindness, paralysis and sometimes death.
The mice that were given lisinopril, a blood pressure drug developed by the US pharmaceutical company Merck and marketed under the name Prinivil, "didn't develop the paralysis characteristic of disease progression," said the Standford University researchers.
"Strikingly, if it was given after the mice developed full-blown symptoms, lisinopril reversed their paralysis."
The findings, led by neurology professor Lawrence Steinman, were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While Steinman warned that "extensive clinical trial work is needed," he was encouraged by the research.
Lisinopril also caused the "proliferation of an important class of immune cells, called regulatory T cells, that prevent autoimmune diseases by dialing down the activity of other immune cells erroneously targeting cells and tissues that should be left alone," the research said.
In Steinman's view, that correlation was a "a key component in the protection provided by the drug."
Experts hope that if further trials show the drug is effective in humans, it could lead to a much less expensive treatment for multiple sclerosis, which can cost a single patient tens of thousands of dollars per year.
"If multiple sclerosis patients can be treated with lisinopril at something like one percent of the price of treatment with Tysabri, then far more patients will receive adequate therapy, at a substantially lower cost to those paying for it," said Marc Feldmann, an Imperial College London immunologist.
Feldmann said he was familiar with the study but did not participate in it.