An experimental therapy using bone marrow stem cells stabilized and in some cases reversed early-phase multiple sclerosis, a new study reports.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that hinders movement and coordination and causes muscle weakness, cognitive impairment, slurred speech and vision problems.
In the decade or more after its onset, MS is characterized by gradual, irreversible neurological impairment. It has no known cure.
Richard Burt of Northwestern University in Chicago led a team of scientists in clinical trials for 11 women and 10 men who did not respond to standard drug treatments, according to a newly published report in the British medical journal The Lancet.
They “rebuilt” the patients’ immune systems, removing defective white blood cells that attack the fatty sheath or myelin that protects the nervous system.
The patients’ immune systems were then replenished with haemopoeitic stem cells extracted from the patients’ bone marrow. These specific stem cells are capable of giving rise to any form of mature blood cell.
After an average follow-up period of three years, 17 of the 21 patients improved by at least one point on a standard disability scale. None had a final score lower than they had before undergoing the stem cell therapy.
Five of the patients relapsed but achieved remission after receiving other immunosuppressive therapy, the Lancet study says.
Participants had MS for about five years. The clinical trials mark the first time the stem cell technique has been applied to young and relatively healthy individuals in the early “relapsing-remitting” stage of the disease.
The study also finds that the procedure “not only seems to prevent neurological progression, but also appears to reverse neurological disability.”
Gianluigi Mancardi of the University of Genoa in Italy wrote in a commentary in The Lancet that further trials are needed using control groups.
However, the results “imply that this is a valuable alternative to the transplant conditioning therapies used so far.”
MS affects millions worldwide, including almost 400,000 in the United States.