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Stem cell transplants may offer new hope for multiple sclerosis patients

by Kristen Minogue
Jan 29, 2009

Patients with early-stage multiple sclerosis may be able to use their own stem cells to reverse the disease’s progress, according to a study to be released online Friday by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“All current studies in MS have been designed and have been approved based on their ability to slow progression,” said Richard Burt, the study’s principal investigator and chief of immunotherapy for autoimmune diseases at Feinberg. “This is the first study that has ever shown you can reverse disability.”

But other researchers are skeptical of the long-term results.

The study, scheduled to publish online Friday in The Lancet Neurology, examined 21 patients aged 20 to 53 with early-stage MS. An average of three years after treatment, researchers found all but four showed improvement. All the patients had previously been treated for at least six months with interferon beta, an injectable treatment, but had not responded.

The cause of multiple sclerosis remains unknown, but scientists consider it an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system turns on itself and attacks the central nervous system: the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord.

Symptoms vary by patient and can include extreme fatigue, vision problems, tremors, chronic pain and loss of motor control. Although treatments exist to ease the symptoms, no cure has been found.

Researchers used chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s immune system. They then attempted to rejuvenate the immune system using the patient’s own blood stem cells, extracted before the chemotherapy.

Researchers say this method eliminates the chance the body would reject the stem cells, since they are the patient’s own cells. But other researchers aren’t so sure.

“They think when the stem cells grow back up, they’ll be more naïve and more fresh and they won’t interact with the body in the way the previous ones had,” said Robert Naismith, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Kind of the idea of resetting the system. And the question is, how long will it stay reset?”

Naismith also pointed out destroying the immune system carries the risk of infection. He added that some patients have relapsed after receiving the same treatment.

The study only examined early-stage patients, but in a press release Burt said when he had administered the same treatment to late-stage patients in previous studies, it hadn’t helped.

An estimated 400,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, according to the online publication WebMD. The onset typically begins in younger adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

The Feinberg study was preliminary and nonrandomized, meaning there was no control group to compare patients who received the transplant treatment with those who didn’t. Burt said a follow-up study is already underway in Chicago, Brazil, and the University of Calgary in Canada.

“It paves the way for additional studies in the future, but it’s just kind of a first start,” said Naismith. “But it’s a necessary start.”