This is the third in a series of blog posts about the success the Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Harry Atkins is having in treating autoimmune disorders with stem cell bone marrow transplantation. We previously featured Tina Ceroni, a Burlington Ontario athlete whose life was sidelined by a rare disease called Stiff Person Syndrome, and Jelissa Morgan, a patient with a crippling condition called neuromyelitis optica who is about to resume her nursing career. Today we share the story of Jennifer Molson, who has been free of all traces of Multiple Sclerosis for 11 years.
MS symptoms eradicated by stem cell treatment
Jennifer Molson was working full time and going to school at night in the hope of becoming a police officer. It was 1996 and she was turning 21. When her left arm started going numb for no apparent reason, it was put down to carpal tunnel syndrome.
When thingsbegan to get worse, doctors considered other possible causes. An MRI confirmed it was Multiple Sclerosis.
Jennifer’s disease came on slowly and tended — as MS does — to wax and wane. Within five years, however, it had taken control of her life. Training for the police was out. Full-time employment became part-time work. Eventually she was unable to work at all. Or drive a car. The once unstoppable young woman needed help doing the simplest tasks, such as cutting her food and getting in and out of the shower. “I couldn’t do anything,” Jennifer says now.
She was getting 24-hour care at the Rehab Centre at the Ottawa Hospital, “learning to how to live with my disability.” She could walk only with the help of forearm crutches or a walker. Life in a wheelchair was imminent. Her neurologist, Dr. Mark Freedman, feared that without some kind of an intervention, “she would become very disabled very quickly.”
Intervention came in the form of a stem cell bone marrow transplant to rebuild Jennifer’s immune system where the MS lurked.
For more than a dozen years, Dr. Freedman has partnered with Dr. Harry Atkins, a clinician/researcher, in treating MS patients with stem cell bone marrow transplants. In essence, they take stem cells from an MS patient and purify and fortify them. The patient undergoes extreme chemotherapy to all but annihilate their diseased immune systems. The robust stem cells are then returned to the patient to rebuild a new — hopefully disease-free — immune system.
Tried about 30 times so far, the treatment has shown strong success in stopping the progression of MS. It has also been successfully used in other autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, neuromyelitis optic and Stiff Person Syndrome.
In Jennifer’s case, the stem cell transplant did much more than shut down the MS. It eradicated all traces of it. The crutches and walker are long gone. She’s back working full time. As she described in the book Dreams and Due Diligence:
“I downhill ski, I drive a standard. I can skate. I can dance, but not well … I have no rhythm. That has always been the case. Am I cured? I like to use that word. They (Drs. Freedman and Atkins) don’t like to use that word. They’re calling it a lasting remission.”
Now free of all traces of MS for more than a decade, Jennifer is an active advocate for stem cell research and development in Canada, the country where stems cells were discovered. She has lent her support to the Campaign for a Canadian Stem Cell Strategy, which is developing a plan for Canada to follow through on its outstanding research legacy to produce more of the kinds of new treatments she has benefitted from.
“I’m very lucky. I got a second chance at life. The Canadian Stem Cell Strategy will allow what happened to me to happen for thousands more Canadians who are dealing with currently incurable diseases.”