How These MS Treatments Work: Avonex, Copaxone, and Tysabri
Multiple sclerosis is an illness that has no cure. That doesn’t mean those afflicted with the auto-immune disease have no options though. There is an ever-growing number of treatments available to those who are looking to fight the disease. Many people with MS are presented with numerous options and told to pick one, all without really understanding how the treatment works.
Breaking down MS disease-modifying therapies in simple terms
So I thought I’d try to break down how certain treatments work into the simplest terms I can come up with, in an attempt to better explain what your doctor might not. These are how I like to think of these treatments. I’m going to start with the 3 treatments that I’ve been on: Avonex, Copaxone, and Tysabri.
How MS affects the body
Before I step into the treatments, just a quick review of how multiple sclerosis affects our bodies.
Our bodies have built-in protection in the form of our immune system. This system is a collection of different organs, tissues, and cells that help protect our body from foreign invaders (like viruses, bacteria, parasites, etc.). The immune system is able to recognize these foreign invaders, and when it does, it attacks them in order to protect us and rid us of the invaders. It attacks the invaders by sending specialized cells to remove them or by directing inflammation to the area.
Brain and nervous system
Think of your brain as a giant computer that controls your body and the nervous system as the wires (nerves) leading from the brain to all the various parts of your body. Whenever your brain tells your body to do something, it sends a message on these wires. Like wires you see in your everyday life (for example, your phone charging cord), the nerves are covered with a layer of insulation, which we call “myelin.”
When someone gets an autoimmune disease like MS, the illness tricks our immune system into thinking that parts of our own body are foreign invaders. When it comes to multiple sclerosis, it tricks our immune system into thinking that the insulation around our nerves, the myelin, is a foreign invader and needs to be destroyed. As the immune system starts to damage that myelin, the signals that our brain sends along those damaged areas get interrupted or slowed down.
Avonex (interferon beta-1a)
Avonex (my first ever MS medication) is an interferon (a type of protein) that naturally occurs in the body. Interferons are used by the body to control the way our immune system responds. It is thought that by introducing this type of interferon, it alters the way our immune system responds. Avonex helps reduce that inflammation response and the way that the immune system might attack our myelin.1 I tend to look at Avonex as a spy figuring out the codes that the bad guys use to communicate. He then uses those codes to impersonate the head bad guy and tell his henchmen not to attack the good guys.
Copaxone (glatiramer acetate)
Copaxone (the second treatment I was on) is a man-made protein that is very similar to what myelin (that insulation around the nerves) is made of. While the exact specifics of how Copaxone works aren’t fully understood, it’s thought that introducing this synthetic version of myelin conditions the immune system to no longer attack the myelin (or at least, attack it less). Copaxone shows your immune system that myelin isn’t really a threat and tells it that it no longer needs to attack it. I like to think it makes the immune system get bored of myelin.2
Like many MS medications, they don’t have the exact understanding of why Tysabri works. However, it appears to help prevent the cells that the immune system sends to attack us from entering the central nervous system. When those attacking cells do make it through, it helps prevent them from damaging the myelin.3 I like to think of Tysabri (which I am currently on) as a tough bouncer who keeps the riff-raff out of the club that is my immune system. On the rare occasion when some get by, he goes and makes sure they don’t start any trouble. Tysabri is the Dalton to my Road House.
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