A major new global clinical trial will test whether stem cells can be safely used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), it was announced today.
It will investigate if cells can slow, stop and even reverse damage to the brain and spinal cord caused by active multiple sclerosis lesions. The results will advance medical knowledge "by years", scientists said.
The £10 million trial, involving up to 200 patients around the world, is due to start later this year and will last between three and five years.
Scientists in the UK have received £1 million in joint funding from the MS Society and the UK Stem Cell Foundation for the UK arm of the trial as well as two other studies.
Paolo Muraro, lead researcher on the study based at Imperial College, London, said: "This is the first time that researchers from around the world have come together to test stem cell therapies in MS in such a large-scale clinical trial.
"A trial of this scale would be impossible to run in one location which is why this type of collaboration is essential if we are to make progress in this field."
Researchers at trial sites in London and Edinburgh will harvest stem cells from the bone marrow of 13 trial participants, grow them in the laboratory and then re-inject them into the bloodstream.
The stem cells will make their way to the brain where it is thought they will repair the damage caused by MS - including targeting the "active" lesions, where damage is happening.
MS is a disabling neurological condition affecting the central nervous system and symptoms include problems with mobility, eyesight and bladder control, pain, extreme fatigue and muscle stiffness.
Scientists believe the new study will reduce the time taken to test whether stem cells could be a safe and effective treatment for people with MS by years, the MS Society said.
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the charity, said: "Stem cells hold tremendous potential as a future treatment option for people with MS. We are delighted to be funding this world-leading piece of research which shows the power of an international research collaboration and joint working between charities."
In recent years many people living with MS have been attracted to overseas stem cell clinics which claim to cure long-term conditions in exchange for large amounts of money.
However there is no proven stem cell therapy available for MS anywhere in the world.
It is hoped these new trials will eventually lead to a proven treatment and a reduction in the draw of overseas treatments.
Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, said: "I am delighted that by working in collaboration with the MS Society we have been able to progress these most promising research projects more quickly than by working in isolation.
"Dr Muraro's research project is the first trial of its kind into the use of stem cells for the treatment of MS to take place in the UK. Given the high incidence of MS in the UK in comparison to other countries, I am delighted that we have at last progressed stem cell research to this stage, which will bring much-needed hope to so many people affected by this devastating condition."
Of the two other studies funded by the MS Society and the UK Stem Cell Foundation, one based at Queen Mary Hospital, London, will look at how stem cells can be used to repair nerve damage in people with MS who have optic neuritis, a symptom of MS that can lead to temporary blindness.
The other, based at the University of Nottingham, will compare stem cells from people with a progressive form of MS to those without the condition with the aim of finding effective treatments.