These New Drugs Can Cut the Frequency of Migraines in Half

They're the first medications developed specifically to prevent migraines.

Nov 30 2017, 11:41pm

Gabrielle Lutze / Stocksy

A pair of drugs in late-stage clinical trials use a unique approach that could help people with migraines actually prevent the debilitating headaches. In a study of one drug, about 50 percent of patients had the number of attacks they suffered each month cut in half compared to placebo. Testing with the other drug saw 41 percent of patients halve their number of migraine days per month.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, some 36 million Americans experience migraines, many of them women. Symptoms can be severe: overwhelmingly painful headaches along with nausea and sensitivity to light. Treatment options, though, have been limited. Migraine-specific drugs called triptans can treat attacks that are already underway; patients can also try to manage pain with ibuprofen and naproxen. Researchers have even tried ketamine for especially stubborn cases.

But actually preventing migraines has proven more difficult, with patients turning to drugs used to treat other ailments, including epilepsy, heart disease, and depression. Even Botox is an option.

The new drugs are the first developed specifically to prevent migraines. They work by targeting a chemical in the brain called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which research shows is involved in the pain and sensitivity to light that defines a migraine. By developing x that neutralize CGRP, drug-makers hope to alleviate those symptoms.

Which brings us to the two studies, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The first study concerned erenumab, developed by Amgen and Novartis and tested on about 950 people. They averaged about eight migraines a month and almost half had already tried other prevention options. They were randomly assigned to monthly injections containing a high dose of the drug, a lower dose, or a placebo over six months. Patients who got any dose of the drug had three to four fewer migraine days per month, with half of the people receiving the higher dose reporting at least four fewer days. People in the placebo group had nearly two fewer migraine days.

Fremanezumab, developed by Teva Pharmaceuticals, was the subject of the second study. It focused on a slightly different group of people: chronic migraine patients, who get headaches on 15 or more days a month, with at least eight of them being migraines. About 1,100 patients received monthly injections for three months. A third of participants received the drug each month, another third got the drug the first month then two placebo shots, and the final third received placebos all three times. Those who received any dose of the drug had four to five fewer monthly headache days; people who got the placebo saw a two- to three-day drop.

The research is promising, but there are several caveats. Both studies were sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, which helped analyze the results. The studies compared the drugs to placebos—no treatment at all—instead of to current treatments. That’s in addition to the usual questions about long-term safety and side effects, which are unknown right now since the studies were only three and six months long. Plus, the treatments aren’t as simple as taking a pill; they’re monthly injections and analysts predict the drugs could cost from $5,000 to $12,000 a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Still, both drugs have been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. And other companies are working on similar treatments. That’s good news for the millions of migraine patients who are still looking for relief.

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