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Washington • Federal health regulators have approved the first pill to treat the underlying causes of multiple sclerosis, a debilitating nervous system disorder that has traditionally been treated with injectable drugs.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Swiss drugmaker Novartis' treatment Gilenya to reduce relapses in patients with multiple sclerosis, who experience loss of balance, muscle spasms and other movement problems.

There is no cure for the disease, but steroids can reduce the duration and severity of symptoms in the short term, and seven treatments on the market have had success in reducing recurrence of symptoms.

All involve daily or regular injections, which doctors say discourages some patients from keeping up with their treatment. "Many people prefer to take a capsule because they don't like to stick needles into themselves," said Nick LaRocca, of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Since starting on Gilenya more than two years ago, Seth Morgan, of Chevy Chase, Md., says he has been free of disease relapses. Morgan previously injected himself with a medication every other day.

Wall Street analysts expect sales of Gilenya to top $1 billion. Total U.S. sales of multiple sclerosis drugs exceeded $5.9 billion last year, according to health care data firm IMS Health.

Multiple sclerosis causes the body's immune system to attack the protective coatings of the brain and spinal cord. Gilenya works to reduce a type of white blood cell that often attacks the nervous system.

The FDA approved another pill-based drug for multiple sclerosis patients earlier this year. However, that drug from Acorda Therapeutics is designed to improve walking ability, rather than treat the underlying disease.

The FDA reviewed the drug under a priority timetable reserved for groundbreaking therapies. In June, an FDA panel decided 25-0 that Gilenya helps reduce relapses of multiple sclerosis.

Despite the overwhelming endorsement, panelists also had questions about side effects and said patients should receive their first dose under doctor supervision because of a potentially dangerous drop in pulse rate.

Novartis said it is pursuing regulatory approval in Europe and the rest of the world.