Patients with MS (multiple sclerosis) are displaying “remarkable” improvements following treatment normally used for cancer, according to doctors in Sheffield.
Around 20 patients have been given bone marrow transplants using stem cells from their own blood in the past three years and some patients can now walk again, having being paralysed before. The treatment is known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant and the aim is to destroy the defective immune system through the use of chemotherapy.
The immune system is then built up again using the patient’s own stem cells, which are at such an early stage that they haven’t yet developed the flaws that trigger MS. Consultant haematologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Professor John Snowden, said that the immune system is being re-set back to a point in time before the MS was caused. He added that the treatment has clearly made a huge impact on the lives of patients, something he finds gratifying.
Professor Basil Sharrack from the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield said that it’s a major achievement to have a treatment that could potentially reverse disability.
Most patients are diagnosed with MS in their 20s and 30s and around 100,000 people suffer from the incurable neurological condition in the UK. In MS, the protective layer that surrounds nerve fibres in the spinal cord and brain (known as myelin) becomes damaged. The immune system attacks the myelin by mistake and this causes sclerosis or scarring. The damaged myelin then disrupts signals from the nerves and if the inflammation and scarring process is not treated, eventually MS can lead to permanent neurodegeneration.
The Royal Hallamshire Hospital has teamed up with hospitals in America, Sweden and Brazil to take part in an international trial known as MIST. This trial is to assess the long-term advantages of the stem cell transplant. Everyone on the trial already has relapsing remitting MS, which means they suffer relapses followed by remission periods.
The trial began in 2006 and is coordinated by Professor Richard Burt from Chicago’s Northwestern University. Treatment in the trial involves intensive chemotherapy, which can cause side effects such as hair loss and nausea. The transplant involves a one-off cost of about £30k, the equivalent to the annual cost of some MS treatments.
A 2015 study involving MS patients in Chicago showed significant neurological disability reductions and the improvements for some patients carried on for at least four years, however there wasn’t a comparative control group. The MIST Trial is more detailed and is due to report in a couple of years. The outcome could determine whether the transplant should become a standard NHS procedure for many patients with MS.
UK MS Society’s Head of Clinical Trials, Dr Emma Gray, said that continual research suggests stem cell treatments could provide hope, and it’s obvious that they’ve had a life-changing effect. She added, however, that trials have discovered that while the treatment could be able to improve or stabilise disability in some MS patients, it might not be effective for each type of the condition.