MEDICINE

Looking for relief

New research offers promise for migraine sufferers

BARBARA WICKENS October 31 1988
MEDICINE

Looking for relief

New research offers promise for migraine sufferers

BARBARA WICKENS October 31 1988

Looking for relief

MEDICINE

New research offers promise for migraine sufferers

For the 20 per cent of Canadians who suffer from migraine headaches, relief from the debilitating pain and associated symptoms, including nausea and numbness on one side of the body, is elusive. No cure has yet been discovered for migraines, and many of the treatments currently available either do not work for everyone or can have undesirable side effects. For some, the only solution is to lie down in a darkened room, away from the light and noise that can become unbearable during attacks. Now, clinical testing of new drugs that affect the action of serotonin, one of the body’s own chemicals, may hold out new hope for migraine sufferers. Said Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor: “I think the work now being done on serotonin is the most promising research ever on headaches.”

Researchers have known for several decades that during migraine headaches, which can last for hours or days, blood vessels in the head and brain expand, causing excruciating, throbbing pain. But medical experts did not know what caused that expansion. Now some scientists have concluded that serotonin—one of many neurotransmitters that help carry signals among brain cells—has a key effect on the size of the blood vessels. Research carried out by laboratories in Britain, Canada and the United States indicates that new drug compounds that specifically target serotonin may, for the first time, ease the symptoms of a migraine once it has started.

A British firm has taken the lead in developing a migraine pill that enhances the beneficial effect of serotonin. During an international symposium sponsored by the charitable Migraine Trust in London in September, Glaxo Holdings PLC of London announced that it had successfully tested a compound called GR43175 on about 200 patients in several studies in Europe and the United States. The company reported that when taken in tablet form, the drug quickly halted migraine attacks for at least 70 and as much as 85 per cent of the various groups of patients tested. Now the company is launching another series of tests involving between 700 and 800 patients.

As part of that program, Glaxo Canada Inc. has been conducting clinical trials for the past nine months at 15 hospitals across Canada. In one of those tests, selected patients go to hospital emergency departments during migraine attacks for an injection of GR-43175. Dr. Marek Gawel, a neurologist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Medical Centre who is involved in the program, said that initial results appear promising.

Researchers add that the new serotonin-

specific drugs work better and seem to have fewer side effects than any of the migraine medications currently on the market. But they also caution that migraine sufferers should not

raise their hopes too soon. With further tests to be carried out, and government approvals yet to be obtained, it will be three years at least before the new treatment arrives on pharmacy shelves. Rosemary Dudley, who founded the Toronto-based Migraine Foundation in 1974, was even more cautious. Said Dudley: “In 15 years, we have seen dozens of clinical trials that looked promising at first but did not pan out.” Millions of migraine sufferers are waiting to find out if this time the promise is fulfilled.

BARBARA WICKENS

ANDREW PHILLIPS

WILLIAM LOWTHER