A new stem cell treatment could change the lives of those with multiple sclerosis (MS), a grim condition that affects 2.3 million people worldwide. The recently trialed therapy can prevent relapses and reduce the severity of symptoms, providing hope for those with the disease.
MS is an autoimmune disease, meaning that it affects the immune system. The immune system’s job is to identify and fight off disease, but for some people, things go wrong, and it mistakenly attacks healthy parts of the body. For people with type 1 diabetes, it attacks the cells that produce insulin, and for those with MS, it damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, interrupting their vital communication. The cause of MS still isn’t known, but it’s thought to be down to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
MS comes with a range of unpleasant symptoms, including fatigue, difficulty walking, and blurred vision. It also leads to issues with balance, coordination, and thinking. Unsurprisingly, the disease has a severe impact on the lives of those afflicted by it, and finding a cure is incredibly important.
The new treatment has only been trialed so far, but the results look very promising. It works by wiping out the faulty immune system using chemotherapy drugs before rebooting it with fresh stem cells from the patient’s own blood and bone marrow. Essentially, it rebuilds the immune system so that it doesn’t attack the body’s own cells.
The trial involved 102 patients from the US, UK, Sweden, and Brazil. They all had relapsing-remitting MS, by far the most common form of the disease. It is characterized by episodes of new or worsened symptoms that slowly improve. The patients were split into two groups, 52 were given the new treatment – called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation – and 50 received normal drug treatment.
A year after the trial, only one patient in the treatment group suffered a relapse, compared to 39 in the control group. After three years, the new transplants had succeeded in 94 percent of patients, while only 40 percent of the control group experienced a positive outcome. Symptoms for those in the control group worsened, but they improved for those given the new treatment.
The results were announced at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation in Lisbon, Portugal.
"We are thrilled with the results – they are a game changer for patients with drug-resistant and disabling multiple sclerosis," Professor John Snowden, director of blood and bone marrow transplantation at the UK’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, told BBC News.
Louise Willets, who received the treatment, said that “it feels like a miracle”.
It is important to note that these are interim results, and that the new treatment has only been tested on 52 people. It is also pricey (around $42,000 – similar to the cost of annual MS drugs), unpleasant to endure, and won’t help everyone with MS.
Nevertheless, it’s set to hit UK hospitals in the not-too-distant future and could dramatically alter the lives of many with this debilitating disease.