Patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) who were given a treatment normally used for cancer have shown an incredible recovery, with some who were previously paralysed even being able to walk again. Leading to what some experts have described as “miraculous” results, the technique could be used more frequently on those who suffer from the debilitating condition, although they do warn that patients have to be fit to survive the harsh chemotherapy.
Multiple sclerosis occurs when a person’s own immune system develops a fault that causes it to go rogue, attacking the lining of nerves in the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms depend on which parts of your nervous system the immune system targets, but the disease typically involves problems with mobility and balance, numbness and tingling, and a blurring of vision.
Diagram showing how the immune system damages the lining of nerve cells. Blamb/Shutterstock
The clinical trial involved 20 patients at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, England, who were given what’s known as an autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT), normally used for those with cancer. This involves firstly harvesting stem cells from the patient’s blood before putting the participant through chemotherapy in order to destroy their faulty immune system. Then the previously removed stems cells are used to rebuild the immune system from scratch. Because stem cells are in effect "blank slates," they do not have the flaws that lead to the development of MS, so reinfusing them effectively “reboots” the immune system.
When Holly Drewry was just 21 years old she was diagnosed with MS, and by the time she was 25 she was confined to a wheelchair. Unable to dress herself, wash, or pick up her daughter, she required a carer to get through her daily routine. A few days after receiving the treatment, Holly was able to wiggle her toes, and eventually walked out of hospital. While she is not out of the woods, and nobody knows for certain if she will have a relapse, so far she has been clear of MS for two years. Doctors are describing her condition as “dormant,” although there is hope that it has permanently been cured.
Another patient in the trial, Steven Storey used to take part in triathlons, yet in 2013 he was diagnosed with MS. “I went from running marathons to needing 24-hour acute care. At one point I couldn't even hold a spoon and feed myself,” Storey told the BBC. Four months after undergoing HSCT he could stand unaided, 10 months on and he completed a mile long swim in a lake, and since then has even been able to ride a bike. His aim is to eventually complete another triathlon.
The clinical trial has been documented for a BBC Panorama program “Can you stop my multiple sclerosis?" to be broadcast in the U.K.