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Working together to speed up progress

Sir Geoffrey Owen

Sir Geoffrey Owen, former editor of the Financial Times, was part of a family living with MS at a time when no effective treatments were available. Since then, great strides have been made in MS research.

Sir Geoffrey has been interviewing top MS scientists to find out where things stand today. In this blog, he tells us how funders need to work together to speed up progress.

Sometimes it feels like we are constantly hearing about research breakthroughs, but many people living with MS – especially progressive MS - have yet to feel all the benefits of these advances.

Part of the reason for this is because developing a new treatment is a very long and complicated process. The average time between initial discovery and licensing is 10-15 years, but the process can take much longer.

The current challenge is to accelerate the pace of scientific progress and bring new medicines into the clinic. For this to happen, scientists who work on MS have to be adequately funded.

Who funds MS research in the UK?

Funding for MS research comes from three main sources

  • Government agencies
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Charities

In all these different organisations, there are people with personal experience of MS working tirelessly to help find treatments for themselves or their loved ones. But the only way that treatments to stop MS are going to become a reality, is if all these funders work together.

The role of pharmaceutical companies

The development of a new medicine starts in the lab and moves into clinical trials to test safety and efficacy. This is usually when development becomes too expensive for universities and is taken on by a pharmaceutical company.

The pharmaceutical industry is a large spender on research and the industry plays an essential role in developing new medicines. Drug development is risky and expensive. Crucially, most molecules fail at some stage in the process, often after a company has spent a lot of money. So it is only these companies that have the resource to take this risk.

The role of charities

As well as the amount of funding, the sustainability of funding over time is really important. The development of alemtuzumab as a treatment for MS began in the early 1990s, but scientists had difficulty getting funding for clinical trials and pharmaceutical companies didn’t get involved until the 2000s. The treatment could have been available earlier if funding had been more consistent. This is where charities can make a crucial contribution.

Many UK medical charities fund a range of conditions, so there are limits to how much they can make a long term commitment to a specific condition. Such commitment can only come from charities that concentrate on one condition. In MS that is the role of the MS Society.

What is the future for funding progressive MS research?

Research in progressive MS has not yet reached the stage which could attract large-scale investment from the pharmaceutical industry. But some small firms, started by university scientists, are planning trials for potential myelin repair treatments. And we expect that before long the industry will realise the potential and decide to enter the field.

Meanwhile, the MS Society is already funding several progressive MS research initiatives. These include a phase II trial into a potential myelin repair treatment called Bexarotene, the MS-STAT2 trial testing whether simvastatin can slow progression in secondary progressive MS, and our new clinical trials platform which should be launched at the end of this year.

> Read Sir Geoffrey’s full paper