Breakthrough stem cell therapy could provide hope to millions living with MS

Multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease roughly 5,000 people are diagnosed with in the UK every year, is unpredictable and notoriously difficult to treat. That might all be about to change thanks to a breakthrough stem cell study that has managed to halt the progress of the disease, and even relieve symptoms for some of the patients involved.

The study, which involved wiping out a patient’s immune system using cancer drugs and then rebooting it with a stem cell transplant, was conducted with just over 100 patients in hospitals spread all over the world. This included centres in Sheffield, Chicago, Stockholm and Sao Paulo.

The subjects were all selected because they experienced relapsing MS, where there are only brief periods of remission from treatment in-between attacks. As part of the study, the patients were treated with either haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or traditional symptom-relieving drugs.

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The interim results of the study were released at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation, currently taking place in Lisbon. For those treated with traditional MS drugs, things went very much as expected. 39 of the 50 had already relapsed after the first year. Three years later, and the treatment had been labelled a failure for 60% of the patients.

The HSCT treatment, on the other hand, involved initially washing out patients’ faulty immune systems using chemotherapy, before reinfusing stem cells taken from their own bone marrow, which is already known not to be affected by MS.

Remarkably, of the 52 patients who received the HSCT treatment, only one relapse occurred after a year passed. Three years on, and the scientists had found that the treatment had only failed for three of the 52 patients, with many reporting a reduction in their disability.

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“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 Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, told the BBC.

MS, a disease that attacks immune systems, the spinal cord and nerves in the brain, often varies from person to person. Those affected usually have problems with mobility, muscle control and fatigue, and can sometimes be affected by other disabilities like blindness, so it’s clear to see how momentous a treatment like this could be for the 100,000 affected in the UK – and around 2.5 million globally.

However, the treatment isn’t cheap and costs around £30,000. It’s also a very demanding process, requiring weeks in isolation in hospital and strenuous chemotherapy. It’s also worth noting that the findings are an interim analysis, meaning that data has been analysed before data collection has been fully completed. Nevertheless, the early indications are encouraging. Dr Susan Kohlhaas, the director of research at the MS Society, told the BBC that HSCT “will soon be recognised as an established treatment in England, and when that happens, our priority will be making sure those who could benefit can actually get it”.

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