An amazing study just discovered possible breakthrough news: 3 years after undergoing a stem cell treatment for MS, 91% of the patients are into remission. This post from ScienceAlert highlights how 86 percent of them have had no relapses, and 91 percent are showing no signs of MS development.
A new stem cell treatment has sent most of the MS patients who tried it into remission, halting the progression of the disease even several years afterwards.
The clinical study, led by Richard A. Nash of the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute in the US, involved 24 volunteer patients with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). This form of the disease, which affects around 85 percent of MS patients around the world, is characterised by continued inflammatory attacks on layers of myelin – the membrane that insulates and protects the nerve fibres that make up our central nervous systems. This leads to patches or lesions in the membrane, and these interrupt the messages that are being transmitted along the nerves. Symptoms, which grow worse as the disease progresses, include a loss of motor function, fatigue, vertigo, memory loss and depression.
According to Jeri Burtchell at Healthline News, prior to receiving the new treatment, the volunteers’ walking ability, motor skills, level of cognition and quality of life was tested using the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). Each scored between 3.0 and 5.5, which classified them as having a mild to moderate disability. Each of the volunteers had been experiencing RRMS for 15 years or less, with continued relapses.
The three-month-long procedure started with a treatment known as high-dose immunosuppressive therapy (HDIT), coupled with various forms of chemotherapy in some of the patients, which completely wiped out their natural immune systems. Then, over the course of four years between 2006 and 2010, they received transplants of millions of stem cells that had been harvested from their own blood to rebuild their immune systems. The patients spent up to four weeks in hospital waiting for their new immune systems to take effect before they returned home.
It was hoped that, unlike their now-destroyed, original immune systems, their new, ‘rebooted’ immune systems wouldn’t accidentally target the patients’ myelin, and this would stop the progression of MS in its tracks. According to the paper published in JAMA Neurology, that’s exactly what occurred, in the vast majority of the patients. The researchers report that three years after completing the treatment, 86 percent of the volunteers have avoided relapses, and almost 91 percent have so far shown no signs of their MS progressing.
“Although the HALT-MS study is ongoing, these preliminary results at the three-year mark are astounding. [Patient Dave] Bexfield, as well as most of the other patients in the study, has remained relapse-free, with no enhancing new lesions visible on an MRI scan. Moreover, many of the patients have shown remarkable improvement in their EDSS scores. Bexfield went from being housebound at times before the study to resuming many of his favourite activities, including hitting the slopes on his snowboard – if only for yards at a time between falls.
Improvement in the EDSS scores from baseline suggests that nerves may be remyelinating, the holy grail of MS research. Restoring myelin can repair damaged nerves, restoring their function.”
Of course, treatments like this are not without harsh side effects, but the researchers reported that while those that cropped up were unpleasant, they weren’t unexpected. “Most early toxic effects were haematologic and gastrointestinal and were expected and reversible,” they wrote in the paper. The patients will continue to be monitored in case any of these side effects endure.
The team says it’s too soon to say whether stem cell treatment will end up being a standardised treatment for MS patients, but they’re now working on investigating how myelin is regrowing in their volunteers using MRI scans, and will further analyse the data captured by the study, now five years after its completion.
Featured image: Macrophages accumulating around a lesion caused by MS. Credit: Marvin 101 / Wikimedia