A new technique for transplanting stem cells into patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) has successfully halted and even reversed the disease, researchers report today. The results are the best seen in more than a decade of research on stem cells in MS and confirm the role of the technology in expanding the frontiers of medicine.
MS is a debilitating neurological condition which affects more than 85,000 people in the UK, causing progressive disability and leaving many wheelchair-bound. It is caused by the body's own immune system attacking and destroying the protective myelin sheath surrounding the nerves, leading to loss of control of the limbs, and other effects. There is no cure and there are few effective treatments.
In the new study, 21 patients with the commonest form of the disease (about 80 per cent of all cases) were treated with stem cells extracted from their own bone marrow.
After extraction, the patients were treated with drugs to remove their white blood cells, known as the "conditioning regimen", and the stem cells were later re-infused to "reset" the immune systems, so it stops attacking the body. Three years after the treatment, carried out between 2003 and 2005, progression of the disease had been halted in all 21 patients and 17 had seen a significant reduction in their disability. Most of the patients were in their twenties and thirties and were in the early stages of the disease.
Previous research has used harsher treatments similar to chemotherapy for cancer which carry a risk of serious side effects and death. The new study used a milder method which had fewer side effects and was "well tolerated", the researchers say.
The study, by researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago, is published in The Lancet Neurology. A commentary published with the American study says that improvement following stem cell transplantation in MS has been seen before "although not as clearly as in [these] results". It says that a large, randomised trial is necessary to establish the place of stem cells as a treatment for the condition.
A spokesman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society said that the researchers were planning a second trial involving 100 patients.
Doug Brown, research manager at the society, said: "These are very encouraging results and it is exciting to see that, in this trial, not only is progression of disability halted, but damage appears to be reversed. Stem cells are showing more and more potential in the treatment of MS and the challenge we now face is proving their effectiveness in trials involving large numbers of people."
Last October, researchers from the University of Cambridge reported dramatic improvement in the condition of MS sufferers treated with alemtuzumab, a 30-year-old drug with an established role as a treatment for leukaemia.
Alemtuzumab was part of the conditioning regimen in most of the patients treated in the new study and the Northwestern University researchers admit that they cannot be certain which caused the beneficial effect – the drug or the stem cells. The planned larger trial is expected to settle the question.
Vicci Chittenden: 'I was tricked by a clinic which offered me hope'
After more than 30 years with multiple sclerosis, Vicci Chittenden was tempted by reports of patients seeing big improvements in their condition after stem cell treatment abroad. She raised several thousand pounds with the help of friends to make the trip to the Netherlands – but was left disappointed and a lot poorer. "The treatment had no effect on me," she said. "The clinic was later shut down because it was a fraud. I had checked it out as carefully as I could before I went but I had thought, 'what have I got to lose?'"
The experience has left its mark. Now 56, she has lived with MS since being diagnosed at the age of 17. She lost the sight in her right eye and, later, her balance was affected, confining her to a wheelchair. But she is cautious about claims made for new treatments.
"These latest results are encouraging and I would love to be part of further stem cell trials," she said. "But the research must be regulated. People are looking for a cure and the return of their health. Stem cells may provide an answer but the research must be carried out under supervision."