In what is being hailed as a remarkable success, doctors at Ottawa Hospital have used stem cell treatment and succeeded in reversing the effects of the disease in patients with severe MS (multiple sclerosis).
MS is a crippling disease more common in females and more prevalent in temperate climates such as Canada and the United States. Globally, about 20 million people are afflicted by this disease, in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Myelin is a protective and insulating coating, much like the coating around electrical wires. Severely damaged nerves with a destruction of the protective coating affect communication between the brain and the rest of the body. This produces symptoms affecting various body systems, ranging from numbness, difficulty walking, loss of balance, blindness, and loss of bladder and bowel control.
Patients with MS often become confined to a wheelchair and need help with activities of daily living. In its relapsing-remitting form, the disease is characterized by long periods of remission interspersed with “attacks.” In the majority of patients, however, this progresses to a stage where the symptoms are more permanent. Patients with primary progressive MS, the most aggressive form of the disease, don’t experience any periods of remission and suffer a progressive decline in their condition.
Dr. Harold Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman conducted a clinical trial that studied the effects of stem cell therapy in 70 patients over a period of 13 years. One patient, Jennifer Molson, for example, had trouble walking and feeding herself before the treatment. She now runs, skis, and kayaks and has not had any symptoms of MS for the past 14 years. Molson was in the treatment cohort of the trial, and like her, 70 percent of patients who received the therapy benefited with diminishing symptoms or halt in the progress of the disease. Stem cell therapy for MS is still considered experimental and high-risk.
According to the report published in The Lancet, this is the first instance of any treatment completely stopping the disease for the long-term without the use of drugs. It is also the first treatment to produce such an impressive level of neurological recovery. The treatment essentially rebooted the immune system of these patients with a combination of stem cell therapy and chemotherapy. The stem cells were harvested from the bone marrow of the patient, purified, and frozen. The patient then underwent aggressive chemotherapy, followed by transplantation of the stem cells. It is believed that this wipes clean the immune system’s memory of attacking the patient’s own nervous system.
The Ottawa trial is different from other previous stem cell treatments for MS in that it does not simply suppress the immune system, but wipes it clean altogether. Nonetheless, the treatment, which is considered extremely high-risk, is not available for widespread use as a standard therapy for patients with MS. One of the 24 patients in the treatment cohort died of liver failure and 30 percent of patients saw a worsening of symptoms. Experts are, therefore, urging more extensive clinical trials. Meanwhile, for the small percentage of MS patients who are eligible for this therapy, it is nothing short of a miracle.