Last summer we blogged about a team at The Ottawa Hospital that had proved a stem cell/chemo combo treatment could halt the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) and — in some cases — help patients recover from the autoimmune disease.
Now comes news from the United Kingdom that further substantiates the work of Drs. Harry Atkins and Mark Freedman in showing that using bone marrow stem cell transplants to rebuild an MS patient’s immune system can prevent the disease from worsening and dramatically improve mobility and freedom from pain for some.
The Atkins-Freedman study, published in the prestigious Lancet journal, focused on two dozen patients treated over a decade. The UK study, published last week in JAMA Neurology, reviewed 281 patients tracked over five years. Led by Dr. Paolo Muraro of Imperial College London, the study found the treatment prevented symptoms of severe disease from worsening for five years for almost half of the patients treated. Drs. Atkins and Freedman co-authored the UK study and results from their work were included in the review.
Among patients with relapsing MS, nearly three in four saw no worsening of their symptoms five years after treatment, while younger patients with less severe forms of the disease were more likely respond to the therapy. Most of the patients, though, had progressive MS, which is more severe. Among them, one in three experienced no worsening of symptoms, according to a report by Imperial College.
MS occurs when a person’s immune system misfires and begins attacking nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Currently, there is no treatment for sever, progressive MS.
In essence, the new approach, which is called autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, involves extracting the patient’s own bone marrow stem cells and fortifying them, then destroying their immune system through chemotherapy. The stem cells are then transplanted back into the patient to rebuild the immune system — ideally without the disease.
The stem cell/chemo treatment is not for everyone who has MS — young people with more robust stem cells tend to respond better than older patients — and it comes with risks. Eight patients died following the treatment.
Dr. Muraro said the risks must be weighed against the benefits: “We previously knew this treatment reboots or resets the immune system – and that it carried risks – but we didn’t know how long the benefits lasted. In this study, which is the largest long-term follow-up study of this procedure, we’ve shown we can ‘freeze’ a patient’s disease – and stop it from becoming worse, for up to five years.”