New stem cell treatment is helping to manage multiple sclerosis

Stem Cell Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

Steven Storey went from being an athlete running marathons to someone forced to use a wheelchair and require full-time care. In 2013 doctors diagnosed Storey with multiple sclerosis. “At one point I couldn’t even hold a spoon and feed myself,” he told the BBC’s Panorama program. Another person afflicted with MS, Holly Drewry, came down with MS when she was 21. Her condition worsened after she gave birth to her daughter Isla. Now, new studies are giving both hope that they’ll be able to live a normal life.

MS is an incurable neurological condition that affects 400,000 people in the U.S. and 2.5 million worldwide. Each week across the nation, doctors diagnosis roughly 200 new cases. The disease typically affects people in their 20s and 30s but can afflict those at any age. Early symptoms include blurred or double vision, cognitive problems and loss of balance. The condition worsens to the point that many, like Storey and Drewry, are confined to a wheelchair to move around.

New studies, however, are bringing a tremendous amount of hope to those suffering from MS. Recently 20 U.K. MS patients received bone marrow transplants using their own stem cells. In only a short time, remarkably, they were able to walk again.

With MS, the immune system accidently attacks the myelin, which is the protective layer surrounding nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. The damaged myelin then interrupts the nerve signals. Without treatment, the condition worsens.

“HSCT uses chemotherapy to destroy the faulty immune system.”

A new stem cell treatment, called autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant, uses chemotherapy to destroy a sufferer’s faulty immune system. Scientists then rebuild the patient’s immune system using their own stem cells. The reason this appears to work is because these cells have not developed the bad habits of the faulty cells that trigger MS.

“To have a treatment which can potentially reverse disability is really a major achievement,” said Prof. Basil Sharrack, of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

In the two years since Drewry received the HSCT treatment, she’s had no relapses and there are no remnants of the disease on her scans. Professor John Snowden, consultant haematologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said, “It’s clear we’ve made a big impact on people’s lives, which is gratifying.”

Amy Bowen, Director of Service Development at the MS Trust, wanted to make it clear that while it appears these treatments are working, the studies are still in their very early stages. It’d be wrong to jump to conclusions and simply say that HSTC is a cure for MS.

“It’s a long way from being a routine treatment for MS,” said. “We still need more clinical trials to understand who is most likely to benefit from treatment, to develop safer treatment procedures and understand what the long-term effects of treatment might be.”

Doctors warn there are risks with HSTC and that it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. If you’re thinking about having the procedure done, make sure to do so from a reputable, certified doctor. Bowen followed up by saying the treatment is “very powerful” and has “significant risks as well as potential benefits.” One of those benefits includes walking again, but some side-effects include nausea and hair loss.