A transplantation procedure to treat multiple sclerosis using a patient's own stem cells has shown impressive results
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a complex autoimmune disorder in which myelin, the protective sheath around nerve fibres, begins to get degraded. Progressive inflammation and scarring results in permanent nerve damage which can eventually lead to severe disability. While there has been progress in controlling the disease, no cure currently exists.
Patients in a groundbreaking trial held at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital in the UK, have received autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplants. This procedure involves destruction of the patient's faulty immune system, before repopulating it with the individual's own stem cells isolated from the blood. These cells have not yet developed the hallmarks of MS, and so can 'reset' the immune system.
"The immune system is being reset or rebooted back to a time point before it caused MS"
The study is a part of MIST, an international trial on the procedure as a prospective MS treatment. So far individual claims have been extremely encouraging, with one patient progressing from struggling to feed himself to standing without aid after 4 months. The astonishing results have also been repeated by other patients in the trial.
While it's not yet clear whether the procedure is 'permanent', it offers a welcome change to conventional treatment for the disorder. The process of destroying the immune system is unfortunately unpleasant due to an intense round of chemotherapy, but many MS patients experience far worse in everyday life so the treatment is likely desirable.
The treatment costs around £30,000 per patient, which is comparable to a year's drug costs. Because the process cannot be patented, there has been difficulty in persuading companies to get involved. Although results are very promising so far, and certainly can make a big individual impact, we need more data to establish how long the results last, and exactly who is suitable.
"Ongoing research suggests stem cell treatments such as HSCT could offer hope, and it's clear that in the cases highlighted by Panorama they've had a life-changing impact. However, trials have found that while HSCT may be able to stabilise or improve disability in some people with MS it may not be effective for all types of the condition"
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