An international team of researchers led by Imperial College London have successfully used stem cells in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
While the use of stem cells for the treatment of multiple sclerosis cannot be considered a cure, over a five-year period the study showed that almost of half of patients with an aggressive form of the disease showed no deterioration after five years.
More than 2.3 million individuals are affected by multiple sclerosis, a condition which causes the body’s immune system to attack nerve cells. While not fatal, the disease causes serious neurological disability.
Lead researcher, Dr. Paolo Muraro, said “We previously knew this treatment reboots or resets the immune system but we didn’t know how long the benefits lasted.” The results of the study show that the treatment could be used improve quality of life in some patients.
The researchers say the success of autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT) in the treatment of multiple sclerosis would depend on the careful choosing of patients. Younger individuals with a relapsing form of the disease fared better with stem cell treatment over a five-year period than older individuals who had undergone previous immunotherapies. The success rate was also higher in individuals with lower neurological disability scores. Overall, 46% of the 281 patients who underwent AHSCT treatment halted the progression of the disease.
Stem cell therapy involves the harvesting of stem cells from a patient and reintroducing them in a damaged part of the body, although the treatment is not without its side effects. Before stem cells can be reintroduced, the immune system must be virtually wiped out to reduce the risk of stem cells being rejected. That requires aggressive chemotherapy, which carries significant risks. Even when a patient’s own stem cells are harvested there is a risk of rejection.
While the use of stem cells for the treatment of multiple sclerosis was shown to be effective, eight patients (2.8%) died within 100 days of receiving the stem cell transplant. This is naturally a cause for concern for a disease that is not life-threatening. Patients undergoing the treatment would essentially be gambling their lives, risking death to improve future quality of life. However, despite the risks, the treatment could be considered as an option for individuals that have not responded to approved treatments.
According to the researchers, “the results support the rationale for further randomized clinical trials of AHSCT for the treatment of MS.”
The study – Long-term outcomes following stem cell transplant for multiple sclerosis – was published online this February in the journal, JAMA Neurology.