Dr. Harry Atkins’ success in treating a rare disease that can turn active, healthy people into living statues is getting the national attention it deserves this week, thanks to the Journal of the American Medical Association’s publication of his paper, Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation for Stiff Person Syndrome.
The JAMA Neurology paper describes two Canadian women who have had all symptoms of their Stiff Person Syndrome (SPF) disappear thanks to a stem cell treatment that Dr. Atkins and his team at the Ottawa Hospital have developed. Readers of this blog will be familiar with one of the women’s stories — we told you all about Tina Ceroni back in December After our post, Canada AM featured Tina and Dr. Atkins.
This week’s reports, including Elizabeth Payne’s excellent news feature (the “living statue” description is hers) that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post, explain how SPS, which strikes about one in a million people, triggers episodes in which muscles seize up uncontrollably, leaving a person rigid. Sheryl Ubelacker of the Canadian Press describes it this way in the Toronto Star:
“SPS is characterized by episodes of stiffness in the muscles and painful muscle spasms, which can be brought on by stress, loud noises or emotional distress. Some people with the disorder are so disabled they are unable to walk or move and may isolate themselves at home to avoid triggering an attack.”
Ms Payne’s story also tells of a third woman, a 53-year-old mother of six named Ingrid Steppan who was told she would likely die from her SPS. A recent transplant patient, she has now “put her wheelchair and walker away.”
Success with MS, Crohn’s and other autoimmune conditions
Dr. Atkins has used this technique with other autoimmune diseases, including Multiple Sclerosis (where he led a multi-year clinical trial involving about 30 patients) Crohn’s disease and neuromyelitis optica. The process involves extracting a patient’s bone marrow stem cells, then purifying and fortifying them. After the patient undergoes extreme chemotherapy, in which their immune system is effectively destroyed, the purified and fortified stem cells are put back to build a new disease-free immune system.
A modest and soft-spoken man, Dr. Atkins does not used the word “cured” when he talks about the patients who have had success with this treatment. He refers to his patients as “in remission.” For Jennifer Molson, an MS patient, that remission has lasted more than a decade. And in the case of Jelissa Morgan, the treatment has allowed her to overcome her crippling neuromyelitis optica and will be resuming her nursing career in September.
The success that Dr. Atkins is having is encouraging and offers great hope for the future. But it also harkens back to the past: the procedure he is refining can be traced back to the groundbreaking work the Canadians Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch did in proving the existence of stem cells in the early 1960s. It’s an area of medical science where Canada researchers excel. And people like Tina Ceroni, Jennfer Molson, Jelissa Morgan … and now Ingrid Steppan are living proof.