When it comes to treating multiple sclerosis (MS), Dr. Mark Freedman would like to move beyond damage control.
“We can limit, to some extent and in some cases completely, the damage,” says Dr. Freedman, a clinician/researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. “But fixing the damage that’s been done? Not yet. “
Fixing the damage done by MS is the ultimate goal of a new $4.2-million clinical trial that Dr. Freedman is co-leading with Dr. James J. Marriott of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. It’s called MESCAMS (for MEsenchymal Stem cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients).
“The excitement surrounding the MESCAMS has been tremendous,” says Yves Savoie, President and CEO, MS Society of Canada, a major supporter of the clinical trial. “Not only is Canada fortunate to have two trial sites in both Ottawa and Winnipeg – accepting a total of 40 Canadian participants – but MESCAMS is also part of a larger international research effort studying mesenchymal stem cells that pools scientific resources and expertise from nine countries. This level of collaboration will yield important answers about the efficacy of cell-based treatments.”
Found mostly in the bone marrow, fatty tissue and cartilage, mesenchymal stem cells have a natural anti-inflammatory effect that makes them an intriguing possibility for treating MS, which occurs when a person’s immune system attacks and inflames the protective sheath (myelin) covering nerves. Myelin damage snags the signals that flow from the brain through the nervous system to the rest of the body.
“These cells possibly will act like anti-inflammatory drugs to control the disease,” says Dr. Freedman. ”But what we’re really looking for is the potential for something to heal up, for a sign that these cells are doing something. Other people have noted it in the optic nerve system, which is actually an extension of the brain and is affected by MS.”
Readers may be familiar with the story of Jennifer Molson, the Ottawa woman whose MS symptoms were eradicated by a stem cell bone marrow transplant conducted by Dr. Freedman and Dr. Harry Atkins as part of an earlier clinical trial. Each trial participant underwent a harrowing course of chemotherapy that virtually destroyed their immune system before being given a fortified version of their own bone marrow stem cells to rebuild it. With MESCAMS no such chemo bombardment is necessary.
“We don’t exactly know why Jennifer, and others in the trial, recovered. We think the reason is we were able to curb the inflammatory response to the point where the body could heal. These cells that we’re using (mesenchymal stem cells) have been shown, at least in early studies in humans, to repair — period. But they happen, at the same time, to have an anti-inflammatory effect. So they may be able to accomplish both things together. And without the need of any chemo, there is very little risk to the people taking it.”
The real challenge, says Dr. Freedman, will be measuring — and scientifically documenting — repair, if it happens. “When was the last time you heard something that could repair things in MS? Nobody’s been able to show it. So we’re hoping we will be able to see it and measure it. That’s the real goal of this study. If we can all show the same signal through nine or 10 sites around the world doing this, then we’re going to have the evidence we need to move to the next stage, which is doing this en masse with people who have already acquired damage . That’s what our MS patients are all hoping for.“
However, Dr. Freedman urges caution. This is an early stage clinical trial. If the mesenchymal stem cells do affect repair, it may be minimal. “The primary outcome is going to be the effect on gadolinium-enhanced lesions in MS as shown by MRI. It will prove whether we have biologically viable cells capable of creating an effect that can be measured in humans. It may sound trivial, but it’s never been done.”
Editor’s Note: MESCAMS organizers have published a Frequently Asked Questions page about the trial here (http://bit.ly/1ES3jN1). Full eligibility criteria are available here(https://clinicaltrials.gov/show/NCT02239393).