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Coronavirus won’t stop us – MS clinical trials keep fighting

Dr Catherine Godbold

Passionate staff adapting to work remotely? Yes. Dedicated participants staying engaged from afar? Yes. Scientists publishing new papers? Yes. The MS STAT2 trial staff and participants have kept fighting to keep MS research progressing throughout the pandemic. Here’s how.

MS-STAT2 is testing if simvastatin (a cholesterol-lowering drug) can slow disability progression for people with secondary progressive MS. We talked to Dr Tom Williams, one of the trial researchers, and Liz Hyland, a trial participant, to see how they’ve been affected by the pandemic.

Hi Tom, Hi Liz.

So first up, has the trial kept going during lockdown?

Tom: Yes. The last few months have seen much of our team working on hospital wards supporting the NHS, but alongside this we’re working hard to make sure the trial can continue safely.

Fortunately, simvastatin doesn’t put people at a higher risk of Covid-19 so existing participants can keep taking it safely.

We weren’t able to recruit new people to the trial for a few months, but we’ve now started up again at some of our sites.

So have there been changes to the way the trial operates?

Liz: I was due to have a trial check-up in April, but the lockdown meant I couldn’t travel to London.

To continue on the trial, I needed to have a blood test to check for any side effects, so my research nurse Sarah arranged for me to have this at my local GP. Fortunately, this came back clear and my next batch of tablets were delivered by courier.

And rather than coming in for tests to monitor whether my disability is progressing, the team asked me about my walking ability, speed and balance over the phone.

Tom: Now lockdown has eased a bit, many participants have been able to return to face-to-face hospital visits as well. We’re taking lots of precautions – masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing, everything.

And does this affect the progress of the research?

Tom: The phone assessments aren’t quite as good as face-to-face. But the changes mean we can still gather the vital information needed to continue the trial while making sure participants are kept safe.

We’re looking into using video calls to measure walking ability, memory and coordination in the future and an engineer in our team is designing an app that can measure walking distance.

Finally, why is it important to you that the trial continues during the pandemic?

Liz: I’ve had MS for 26 years but after I developed secondary progressive MS there were no treatments available. That’s why I was keen to take part in the MS-STAT2 trial.

Being on the trial is like sunshine through the clouds. It gives me that hope. And even during the pandemic, it’s important that researchers can still gather this information to help find treatments for everyone living with MS.

Tom: We know that there are still lots of people with progressive MS without any treatment options so we are all working as hard as we can to ensure this landmark trial can carry on as best as possible