Multiple Sclerosis [MS] is caused when the hyperactive immune cells target and attack the myelin sheath of a person’s nerves. The myelin sheath acts as an insulator for neurons which allows them to “talk to” each other by transmitting electrical signals. In layman terms this means that a patient’s immune cells will attack their own central nervous system. When the central nervous system begins to shut down a person can lose their cognitive abilities, vision, balance and coordination.
Approximately 400,000 Americans and more than 2.5 million people worldwide are affected by MS.
Stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis is more widely used in foreign countries such as China, Japan and the United Kingdom [UK] then here in the United States. However, the research and trials being conducted in the US have proven to be more effective when the patients are first diagnosed or have what is called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis or RRMS.
In Jan of 2009, Bloomberg reported that according to researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago patients who were given their own stem cells “re-set” the malfunctioning immune system in patients with early stage RRMS and for the first time ever, reversed their disability.
21 patients in the study had RRMS;
After 3 years 17 of the patients had improved on tests of their symptoms;
16 patients had experienced no relapse of their symptoms; and
none had deteriorated.
It was the first study of its kind to actually show reversal of disability. The lead author of the study published in the British journal, the Lancet Neurology, stated that some people had shown complete disappearance of all symptoms. Up until publication only adult stem cells were used in the study. The same group was granted U.S. regulatory approval to conduct the first human studies using embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to form into any of the cell types found within the human body.
As part of a study being conducted in the UK, more than 400 MS patients worldwide were transplanted with autologous stem cells. The hope was that the bone marrow cells would re-set the immune system, however the mortality rate within the trials remained at 1-2%. As a result hematopoietic stem cell therapy can only be considered a “rescue therapy” for the most aggressive forms of MS.
Currently there are no treatments that target the specific abnormal immune response in patients with MS, however that has not stopped the research. There is hope that another type of stem cell, the mesenchymal stem cell, which has immune regulatory properties may help stop the immune attack on the myelin sheath. Autologous mesenchymal stem cells are currently being tested in the UK, Israel and Germany. Clinical trials are also being conducted using mesenchymal stem cells for treatment of MS at the University of Cambridge.
Recent discoveries and the allowance of embryonic stem cell research has given MS patients new hope. No one is willing to accept defeat in the battle against curing MS for future generations!