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People who get migraines may soon have access to a new type of drug. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on the first medications designed specifically to prevent migraine attacks.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: More than 10 percent of us get the occasional migraine. But Dr. Stephen Silberstein says for about 1 percent of the population, the problem is a lot worse.
STEPHEN SILBERSTEIN: These patients are having an almost daily or near daily attacks of migraine. And they're greatly impaired by it.
HAMILTON: Silberstein is a professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. And he's the lead author of a study that tested a new approach to treating chronic migraines. Silberstein, who spoke via Skype, says more than 700 patients got monthly or quarterly injections of special antibodies. He says they act a bit like soundproofing in the brain.
SILBERSTEIN: You have a kid next door making a lot of noise. You put soundproofing, and then all of a sudden, you're quiet. That's what the antibodies do. They dampen. They prevent the noise from aggravating the system.
HAMILTON: The idea is to prevent the full range of migraine symptoms - headache, nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. And the drug helped nearly half of patients who took it. Most had fewer migraines. A few saw them all but disappear. And in a second, larger study, a different antibody produced similar results. Peter Goadsby, the study's lead author, says antibody drugs represent an important advance.
PETER GOADSBY: They offer the first migraine treatment that's actually aimed at the disorder - so a migraine treatment for migraine patients.
HAMILTON: Goadsby, a professor of neurology at King's College in London, says, until now, migraine patients have relied on drugs meant to treat epilepsy or depression or high blood pressure.
GOADSBY: We give them a choice between, like, a beta blocker where they'll feel tired, or we tell them that they can go on an antidepressant, which will make them sleepy and put on weight.
HAMILTON: Goadsby says the antibody treatments don't seem to produce side effects. And he says their success means that it's possible to develop better migraine drugs.
GOADSBY: I hope it shows patients that this is not an impossible problem. It's a tractable problem.
HAMILTON: Both studies were published in The New England Journal of Medicine, so was an editorial by Andrew Hershey, who directs the Headache Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. In it, Hershey describes the benefit to patients as modest but meaningful.
ANDREW HERSHEY: So the modest part is that most of them only had about a two-day improvement over placebo.
HAMILTON: In other words, they might average eight days a month with migraines instead of 10. Hershey also says use of these drugs may be limited by their cost.
HERSHEY: Every indication is they will probably be fairly expensive compounds, which means that they probably will not be first line.
HAMILTON: The Food and Drug Administration is expected to review the new drugs in the next few months. One or both could reach the market in 2018.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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