About 2.5 million people around the world and 400,000 Americans are affected by multiple sclerosis (MS), a disabling disease of the nervous system in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that covers nerves. This leads to gaps in communication between the brain and various parts of the body. In advanced cases, the nerves themselves deteriorate and suffer permanent damage.
The severity of MS varies greatly. Symptoms range from numbness and weakness in a limb and vision problems to fatigue, dizziness, electric shock-like sensations, and problems with bladder and bowel function. The disease has a relapsing-remitting course, but it can become progressive as time goes on. Some patients enjoy long periods of remission, while others lose the ability to walk at all. There is currently no cure for multiple sclerosis. It is treated with disease-modifying therapies to help manage symptoms and expedite recovery from attacks.
Now scientists are developing cell-based therapies that may eliminate the need for disease-modifying therapy and allow MS patients to be treated with a single infusion of autologous mesenchymal stem cells. The use of stem cells in the treatment of multiple sclerosis was discussed recently at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers in June 2016 by Dr. Mark S. Freedman, Professor of Neurology at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can be isolated from adult tissues and coaxed in the laboratory to differentiate into several types of cells. These properties of MSCs make them extremely useful in the treatment of diseases like MS in which there is an inflammatory and immunomodulatory loss of neuroprotection.
Experiments in mouse models have shown that MSCs derived from human bone marrow can increase the formation of oligodendrocytes, the cells responsible for myelin production. MSCs were also found to reduce astrogliosis (an abnormally high number of astrocytes – star-shaped cells in the nervous system) as a result of the destruction of neurons.
Dr. Freedman talked about the phase 2a MESCAMS clinical trial (mesenchymal stem cell therapy for Canadian MS patients), which is part of a larger initiative by nine countries involved in MSC research. The trial is evaluating whether infusion with MSCs is safe and can reduce inflammation and atrophy. The hope is to lower relapse rates and limit disability in patients with both relapsing-remitting and secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.
A previous Canadian study, MSBMT, showed neurological recovery in patients treated with immuno-ablation followed by autologous stem cell transplantation. The treatment was helpful in halting the damage from acute inflammation and in limiting disability from widespread atrophy. The study showed that stem cell treatment could successfully eliminate the need for disease-modifying therapies for multiple sclerosis. Dr. Freedman is optimistic. “The sky is the limit,” he states. What remains to be seen is whether the transplanted stem cells can counteract the disease process and help patients regain functionality in acquired inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis.
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