Although it is unclear what causes MS it is thought that the immune system attacks the protective coating which surrounds nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord leading to inflammation, pain, disability and in severe cases, early death.
The new technique, which is a treatment usually used to fight leukaemia, involves using chemotherapy to entirely eradicate the damaged immune system, before rebooting it with a transfusion of bone marrow cells.
Out of the 24 patients who were given the treatment at least seven years ago, the majority have seen significant improvements . 70 per cent of patients saw a complete stop to the progression of the disease, while 40 per cent saw a reversal in symptoms such as vision loss, muscle weakness and balance loss.
“Our trial is the first to show the complete, long-term suppression of all inflammatory activity in people with MS,” said Dr Harold Atkins, a stem cell transplant physician and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
“A variation of this procedure has been used to treat leukaemia for decades, but its use for auto-immune diseases is relatively new.
“This is very exciting. However, it is important to note that this therapy can have serious side effects and risks, and would only be appropriate for a small proportion of people with very active MS.”
During the trial one participant died of liver failure due to the treatment and another required intensive care for liver complications.
Dr Emma Gray, Head of Clinical Trials at the MS Society, said: “This type of stem cell transplantation is a rapidly evolving area of MS research that holds a lot of promise for people with certain types of MS.
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It’s obviously early to hail this as a total success, but it is fabulous news for some multiple sclerosis sufferers. It might also be great news for sufferers of other autoimmune diseases. Imagine the endless possibilities that the discovery of such a successful therapy could hail for autoimmune diseases in general. With time and work, it’s possible this therapy could be modified and perfected for a number of autoimmune illnesses with severe and life threatening prognoses.
As a person who has battled ME/CFS for the last 15 years, I can’t help but wonder if this might eventually be tested on those in the severe category. Many people with ME/CFS lose their lives in the battle against this illness and stem cell therapies are only one of a few possibilities to create remission in patients with the illness.