Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is among the most common chronic inflammatory diseases of the central nervous system, affecting an estimated 2 million people worldwide. Symptoms of MS can include extreme fatigue, lack of coordination, numbness or tingling, bladder problems, cognitive impairment, tremors, mood changes, and weakness, among others, and can vary greatly from person to person.
Last year, research led by two Canadian doctors from Ottawa, Ontario, and published in The Lancet medical journal, revealed that a high-risk therapy may be able to stop the disease from progressing further.
“This is the first treatment to produce this level of disease control or neurological recovery” from MS, the journal said in a news release, but researchers also admit the procedure may be too risky to offer MS sufferers, as one out of the 24 patients involved in the clinical trial died from liver failure.
The Results Are Impressive
Despite this fact, the results are impressive. In the journal’s accompanying editorial, a German doctor marvelled at the treatment’s efficacy, noting that it’s the “first trial ever that showed complete suppression of any inflammatory disease actively in every single patient for a prolonged period.”
This editorial also says that, for the time being, the treatment should be restricted to specialized centres, warning that “all efforts must be taken to avoid stem cell tourism.” Stem cell tourism is something that has been happening at clinics worldwide, who claim that they can treat and even cure diseases like muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and so on, without any solid research having been done to prove these claims, and at a great cost to the patient.
What Did The Study Involve?
The clinical trial, which was led by Dr. Mark Freedman and Dr. Harold Atkins from the Ottawa Hospital, involved 24 patients over a 13-year period.
The patients underwent an intensive combination of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants in a procedure known as immunoablation and autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
First, doctors harvested stem cells from the patients’ bone marrow, which they then purified and froze. Doctors then subjected the patients to high doses of chemotherapy drugs, similar to those used to treat leukaemia, before returning the preserved stem cells to their bodies.
Essentially they are eradicating the diseased immune system so it has no memory of attacking the central nervous system.
And the results were astonishing. According to The Lancet, this treatment fully halted clinical relapses in all 23 of the surviving patients and stopped the development of any new brain lesions, without the use of medication.
What One of the Patients Has to Say
Jennifer Molson remembers doctors saying, “We kill you and then we rescue you” before commencing her high-stakes procedure back in 2002.
Prior to this treatment, the 41-year-old Ottawa woman was in a wheelchair. “I had no feeling from my chest down. I could barely cut my food,” Molson said. Now, she walks, runs, and even works full time.
She had been diagnosed with MS when she was 21 and within only five years needed full-time care. She admits the procedure was scary, and was her last shot at living. “I had holes in my brain. It lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Molson. “If you see MRIs of my brain before the transplant and after, I have no enhancing lesions on my brain at all. My images are clear. It’s amazing.”
Researchers ‘Floored’ by Results
Researchers had hoped that, at best, they could stop further damage to the patients’ nervous systems, and so Freedman, who had been researching MS for three decades, was “floored” when his patients began improving.
“[Jennifer] was holding her own, and one day she comes in for her visit and she comes in wearing heels,” said Freedman. “What is this? This is a girl who could barely walk with a cane last time I saw her.”
He was thrilled when he began to notice remarkable changes in other patients, such as the vanishing of involuntary rapid eye movement. “I’ve never seen it disappear. Something really neat was going on with these people that was not explainable by our expectations. They were healing.”
Some patients were able to recover lost vision and regain their mobility, and some have even returned to work.
Dr. Atkins, a bone marrow specialist and medical doctor of regenerative medicine at the Ottawa Hospital, said, “I’ve never seen it disappear. Something really neat was going on with these people that was not explainable by our expectations. They were healing.”
In the past, stem cell transplants have shown promising short-term results with MS patients, but the symptoms have always returned. This study aimed to do things differently by wiping out, rather than simply suppressing, the diseased immune system.
Factor To Consider
This study was not controlled by a placebo group, which The Lancet editorial acknowledges is its “most important limitation.”
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