Dr. Harry Atkins
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.…
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.”
In this blog and in our Fall/Winter newsletter we told the story of Dan Muscat, the St. Thomas, Ontario jeweler who has seen remarkable reductions in the symptoms of his scleroderma — a painful and deadly disease that turns the skin of its victims into cement-like hardness and then petrifies their internal organs.…
In this blog and in our Fall/Winter newsletter we told the story of Dan Muscat, the St. Thomas, Ontario jeweler who has seen remarkable reductions in the symptoms of his scleroderma — a painful and deadly disease that turns the skin of its victims into cement-like hardness and then petrifies their internal organs.
Over the summer, Dan underwent an experimental stem cell therapy at The Ottawa Hospital under the care of Dr. Harry Atkins, who has done outstanding work in treating patients with other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Stiff Person’s Syndrome and Crohn’s disease using a combination chemotherapy/stem cell approach.
Avis Favaro reported on Dan’s “180-degree” turnaround on CTV National News last night, telling Dan’s powerful story. You can watch it here.
After the initial report, the CTV website provides a four-minute interview with Dan that goes into greater detail, along with interviews with Dr. Atkins and James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, who says “Dan’s story is an exciting one for the field.”
As Ms Favaro says at the end of her report, Dan continues to get improve and is now able to walk three kilometres on a treadmill. While the extreme treatment isn’t for all scleroderma patients — it comes with potentially fatal risks — it offers new hope where none existed before.
In the wake of the CTV story on Dan, The Ottawa Hospital has produced an online resource for people seeking more information about chemo/stem cell treatments for scleroderma and other autoimmune diseases like MS and Stiff Person’s Syndrome. You can find it here.
In the summer of 2014, Dan Muscat’s fingertips started to tingle. It felt like tiny shards of glass were piercing the skin underneath his fingernails.…
In the summer of 2014, Dan Muscat’s fingertips started to tingle. It felt like tiny shards of glass were piercing the skin underneath his fingernails. Over the next weeks and months the pain crept into his hands.
His family doctor thought it might be arthritis and prescribed a steroid to get things under control. “Within days, the disease sped up,” says Muscat. “It went from the top of my head to my toes. My ankles and my feet were so inflamed I couldn’t walk 20 feet.”
Muscat, who owns a jewelry business in St. Thomas, Ontario, was referred to a rheumatologist who immediately recognized what was happening to him: “Dan had rapidly progressive early onset diffuse scleroderma,” says Dr. Janet Pope of St. Joseph’s Health Care in London.
Scleroderma — from the Greek words for “hard” (sclera) and “skin” (derma) — is the term used for a group of rare autoimmune diseases that, according to the Mayo Clinic, involve hardening of the skin and connective tissues due to an overproduction of collagen. Diffuse scleroderma is a systemic type of the disease, meaning it affects not only the skin and muscle but also the digestive tract and internal organs, ultimately leading to death.
The future did not look good for Muscat: “He had not responded to usual immune suppressive treatment,” says Dr. Pope.
By late 2015, Muscat was growing desperate. He had heard that Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University in Chicago was offering a treatment using a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells to rebuild their immune system and shut down scleroderma. Muscat reached out to the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation for guidance.
“I investigated costs of Northwestern University treatment,” says Muscat, “and it was somewhere between $300,000 and $350,000. I thought about selling my business or my home. If I had to, I would have done that. Financially, it would have been a huge burden.”
Because the American treatment is similar to the combination chemotherapy/ bone marrow stem cell transplant treatment that The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Harry Atkins has used successfully against extreme forms of multiple sclerosis (MS, which is also an autoimmune disorder), the Foundation suggested Muscat reach out to him. Earlier this year Dr. Atkins agreed to take Muscat on as his first scleroderma patient.
“He fit the profile of the kind of patient best treated with these kinds of stem cell transplants” says Dr. Atkins, who is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “There was a randomized trial carried out in Europe that was very well done and had very good results. I know the doctors involved and we’d talked a little bit about it, but their methods had also been published and are available for everybody. That’s why we publish — to spread the knowledge.”
By the time Muscat arrived in Ottawa in May, the disease had taken its toll. Once an imposing figure who worked out regularly and thought nothing of going for five- or six- miles runs, Muscat had watched 45 pounds fade from his six-foot frame. His brisk walk had turned into a painful shuffle. His boundless energy (he built a log home by himself, is an avid fisherman and collects classic sports cars) disappeared, making it difficult to get through a day. His fingers became like stone claws, curving in at the knuckles. His skin was so impenetrable he worried the Ottawa medical team might not be able to run an intravenous line. And the pain was excruciating.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, about 15,” Muscat says.
Muscat began the therapy in June and spent much of last summer undergoing the treatment designed to destroy the diseased immune system and rebuild it with his own purified stem cells, ideally to produce a new, scleroderma-free one. Though not as harsh as the chemotherapy MS patients undergo, it is not a treatment to be taken lightly. The risk did not dissuade Muscat: “If the treatment didn’t kill me, the disease would.”
He made it through chemo with few noticeable side-effects beyond losing his hair and tolerating a couple of infections. Released from hospital in August, he embraced physiotherapy, doing three to five hours daily to get his flexibility back and rid his body of the collagen buildup.
He is now back in St. Thomas, occasionally working at the store — he has to limit his time in public places because the chemo has left him vulnerable to infections. “My pain is one or two percent compared to what it was before.” His range of motion with his arms and legs is much improved and he can get around on foot again.
He realizes it could take a year before the chemo drugs fade from his system and the full benefits of the treatment kick in. Muscat, grateful for the excellent care provided by The Ottawa Hospital’s bone marrow transplant team, is unswerving in his belief that he can beat this disease. “I feel physically and mentally better. I just don’t feel that I’m being attacked.”
In an email message, rheumatologist Dr. Pope said that while Muscat “has a long road ahead, we expect more recovery with softening of his skin and improved function. His pain is less and he feels that shortly after the transplant a ‘switch’ was turned back to how it should be and he developed a better sense of well-being. I will follow him carefully and I hope for more improvement over the next year or two. He is in physiotherapy and is getting ongoing intravenous drugs for safety as his immune system continues to reconstitute. I am very hopeful that Dan will be even better over time. This is not a cure, but has given Dan a better chance of recovery.”
In Ottawa, Dr. Atkins also urges caution. “It’s going to take months and months to know if this is a real improvement. The changes with scleroderma don’t happen overnight. This is not a curative treatment; it doesn’t make scleroderma go away and never come back. It’s something that helps a population of scleroderma patients: some patients improve, some not. There are patients that progress or relapse again.”
Muscat is positive about the future: “I still have the remnants of the disease, but I can jump in and out of my truck again and I can walk a couple of kilometres with no problems. I feel very optimistic, like I’ve been given a second chance.”
Want to know more about last Thursday’s announcement that two Ottawa doctors have found a way to shut down aggressive MS?…
Want to know more about last Thursday’s announcement that two Ottawa doctors have found a way to shut down aggressive MS?
In case you missed it, Rita Celli, host of CBC’s Ontario Today, dedicated her entire hour-long program on Friday to discussing the report. Published in the Lancet, the paper details how Drs. Harry Atkins and Mark Freedman were able to halt the progression of the disease for the 24 patients in the study. Some patients, like Jennifer Molson, saw their MS symptoms disappear entirely over time. You can access the podcast here.
Ms. Celli features Dr. Freedman who explains how the treatment destroys the patient’s immune system through chemo and then rebuilds a new MS free one using their own previously harvested bone marrow stem cells. He also takes calls from listeners, some of whom tell their stories of life with MS.
The program also features clips of Ms. Molson explaining how the treatment freed her from life in a wheelchair, and Dr. Atkins declaring that “MS can be stopped in its tracks.”
The program provided a comprehensive look at the treatment, which is considered high risk (one patient died) and is only for those MS patients for whom nothing else is working.
A team led by two doctors from The Ottawa Hospital has proved that stem cells, used in combination with chemotherapy can halt the progression of aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS) and — in some cases — help patients recover from the autoimmune disease.…
A team led by two doctors from The Ottawa Hospital has proved that stem cells, used in combination with chemotherapy can halt the progression of aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS) and — in some cases — help patients recover from the autoimmune disease.
In a paper published today in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, Drs. Harry Atkins and Mark Freedman show that bone marrow stem cell transplants can eliminate all signs of damaging brain inflammation by rebuilding a patient’s immune system.
MS occurs when a person’s own immune system attacks the myelin protective sheath that covers nerves, causing inflammation and damage that inhibits communication between cells in the nervous system — the brain and spinal column.
The researchers took bone marrow stem cells from patients with aggressive MS and purified them in a laboratory. After the patients underwent extreme chemotherapy, their robust stem cells were returned to rebuild new immune systems.
The clinical trial involved 24 patients and tracked their progression over several years. According to The Ottawa Hospital’s news release, after the treatment:
- Not a single participant experienced a clinical relapse (zero relapses in 179 patient-years), whereas before treatment, the participants experienced an average of 1.2 relapses per year.
- Not a single new active inflammatory lesion could be detected in the brains of any of the participants.
- Not a single participant required MS-specific drugs to control their disease.
- 70% of participants experienced a complete stop in disease progression.
- The average rate of brain shrinkage, typically a measure that correlates with MS progression, returned to levels associated with normal aging.
- 40% of participants experienced some lasting reversal of such symptoms as vision loss, muscle weakness and balance problems.
- Some participants were able to return to work or school, regain the ability to drive, get married and have children.
In Jennifer Molson’s case, the treatment eradicated all traces of the MS that had taken over her life. Prior to taking part in the study, she was receiving 24-hour care at the Rehab Centre at the Ottawa Hospital, “learning to how to live with my disability.” She had quit her job and could only walk with the help of forearm crutches or a walker. Life in a wheelchair was imminent.
Now free of MS symptoms for more than a dozen years, Ms. Molson has resumed a demanding career and a busy schedule. As she described in the book Dreams & Due Diligence: Till and McCulloch’s Stem Cell Discovery and Legacy, “I downhill ski, I drive a standard. I can skate. I can dance … Am I cured? I like to use that word. They (Drs. Atkins and Freedman) don’t like to use that word. They’re calling it a lasting remission. I’m very lucky. I got a second chance at life.”
While his recovery was less dramatic, Vancouver’s Aaron Prentice said his quality of life is much improved: “I am now five years post-transplant,” he wrote in the Foundation’s Cellections newsletter last year. “I have not had a relapse and no longer require a cane. My gait has improved significantly and continues to do so. My arms are symptom free.”
The Ottawa Hospital, the MS Society of Canada and the University of Ottawa have produced a video about the clinical trial that can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW86owclZes&feature=youtu.be
Marjorie Bowman, trial coordinator and advanced practice nurse at The Ottawa Hospital, expressed her admiration for the remarkable “courage and dedication” demonstrated by the trial’s participants. “We thank the patients from across Canada who participated in this clinical trial, as well as their family members,” she said.
The treatment, Dr. Atkins explained in Dreams & Due Diligence, is a variation on the bone marrow ablation that leukemia patients undergo.
“MS is an autoimmune disease where the immune system is attacking a patient’s brain. The simple concept behind our treatment is, ‘Let’s just get rid of the old immune system and put back the seeds, let a new one grow and hope that it won’t learn the same lesson.’
“Because stem cells don’t carry over immunologic memory. That’s really what we have tried to do. We had a track record for doing transplants for leukemia and knew how we could damage the immune system to remove it. We just applied the lessons we learned in care of patients with leukemia and applied them to this new setting.”
Not for everyone
However, the therapy is not for all MS patients.
“It is only used in very severe cases because participants face a significant risk of infection and other side-effects, including death,” Dr. Atkins said in the media release. “The risks are similar to those faced by leukemia patients undergoing this kind of treatment.”
Indeed, one participant in this study died of liver failure due to the treatment and another required intensive care for liver complications. The treatment regimen was modified to reduce toxicity, but all participants still developed fevers, which were frequently associated with infections.
People who are interested in this therapy should speak with their own neurologist, who can request a referral to The Ottawa Hospital MS Clinic or another major hospital with experience in this area. The Ottawa Hospital cannot treat people without valid Canadian health coverage.
While The Lancet paper is focused strictly on the MS patients, Dr. Atkins has also seen some success treating patients with other immunological disorders such as Stiff Person’s Syndrome, neuromyelitis optica and Crohn’s disease.
And Dr. Freedman has gone on to co-lead a new chemo-free MS clinical trial using mesenchymal stem cells. “These cells have been shown, at least in early studies in humans, to repair — period,” he explained recently. “But they happen, at the same time, to have an anti-inflammatory effect. So they may be able to accomplish both things together. Without the need of any chemo, there is very little risk to the people taking it.”
A turning point for MS
Yves Savoie, President and CEO, MS Society of Canada, called publication of the paper “a turning point” in MS care. “What started as a bold idea has translated into a treatment option for people living with highly active, relapsing MS.”
The $6.47 million trial was funded by the MS Society of Canada and its affiliated Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation. The research was also supported by The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, The Ottawa Hospital Department of Medicine and Canadian Blood Services.
Across Ontario, hundreds of people have a stronger appreciation of stem cells, thanks to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (OIRM) Stem Cell 101 — The Promise and Potential.…
Across Ontario, hundreds of people have a stronger appreciation of stem cells, thanks to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (OIRM) Stem Cell 101 — The Promise and Potential.
The spring lecture series — featuring world-leading scientists explaining the field, talking about their research and discussing the ethical issues involved — concluded last night in Ottawa where an audience of about 100 listened, asked thoughtful questions and exchanged ideas with the experts.
Co-sponsored by the University of Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital, Tuesday’s event followed similar free-to-the-public sessions in London, Hamilton and Toronto held in partnership with Western University, McMaster University and SickKids Hospital, respectively.
At each event, local scientists addressed such questions as: “What is a stem cell?” “What’s new in stem cell research?” “What kinds of treatments are using stem cells today?” “What is stem cell tourism?”
At last night’s session, Dr. Bill Stanford, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, told the audience how he left an uncertain regulatory environment in the United States, where President George W. Bush had imposed a ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines, to come to work in Canada. President Barack Obama lifted the ban, but Dr. Stanford chose to stay in Ottawa, he told CBC News, because “here in Ottawa people work together instead of working by themselves and that makes things go much faster and better.”
As part of his discussion on ethics, Dr Jeff Blackmer, Vice-President of Medical Professionalism at the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), focused on private versus public banking of umbilical cord blood, which provides a rich and non-controversial supply of stem cells for transplant. He noted that private cord blood banks, which charge significant collection fees and annual storage fees, can contain an implied messages in their advertising that parents who don’t use their services are letting their children down. While such a decision is a personal one, he noted that public cord blood banking reflects the spirit of universal health care. Canada’s Cord Blood Bank now operates in four cities.
Asked about when new therapies will make it to the clinic, The Ottawa Hospital’s Dr. Harry Atkins said that while the field is progressing rapidly, significant technological challenges remain. That makes it difficult to predict whether a new treatment might become available, he said, noting that in some cases “it could be two years, it could be a decade.”
(Note: The Spring edition of our Cellections newsletter features some of the leading-edge stem cell research underway in Ottawa. Subscribe here, by clicking on “Newsletter.”)
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.…
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).
Two days after we blogged about the scientific concerns regarding Gordie Howe’s experimental stem cell treatment in Tijuana, another example of Canadians seeking unproven therapies abroad has hit the media.…
Two days after we blogged about the scientific concerns regarding Gordie Howe’s experimental stem cell treatment in Tijuana, another example of Canadians seeking unproven therapies abroad has hit the media.
Alberta businessman Lee Chuckry told CBC News in Manitoba that he spent $34,000 for a stem cell therapy in India only to find his MS got worse and that “I think it’s just a big fraudulent scam.”
Chuckry, who has been battling MS for over a decade, was recruited into the stem cell trial by Doug Broeska, founder of a Winnipeg-based company called Regenetek Research. Broeska recruited patients for the the so-called “liberation” therapy pioneered by Italian researcher Dr. Paolo Zamboni in 2008. The treatment, dubbed chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency, or CCSVI, involves widening the patient’s neck veins to improve blood flow. The Indian clinical trial combines CCSVI and the injection of stem cells into the veins and spinal column.
In March 2013, Chuckry flew to India for the trial. “It comes to a point of sort of desperation of trying to find the next thing that might help me, so I’m always on the search for that and I came across this,” he told the CBC. But the attacks came back upon his return home. His attempts to get in touch with Broeska about his new MS symptoms were unsuccessful and he received none of the follow-up common in clinical trials, such as MRIs and physical examinations.
According to the CBC, Broeska claimed on his LinkedIn profile that he earned a PhD at the University of Manitoba, but the university could not confirm that and his LinkedIn profile was down yesterday. The International Cellular Medicine Society, of which Broeska claims to be a member, has no record of his membership. And the ethics committee at India’s Inamdar Hospital in India, where the clinical trial is underway, ordered Broeska to step down as principal investigator because his lack of credentials and follow-up “violated international ethical standards.”
In addition, the Winnipeg Free Press reported this morning that the University of Winnipeg has cancelled a joint project with Regenetek Research.
Over the last few years the much publicized potential of stem cells to treat a variety of diseases has raised hope among patients suffering from conditions for which there currently are no cures. This, in turn, has led some less than scrupulous companies across the globe to capitalize on that hope by marketing costly stem cell therapies that do not have the support of proven clinical evidence. For more information, please visit our Treatment Abroad page.
Both the Howe report and this week’s MS controversy point to the need for Canada to make stem cell research and development a national priority. As James Price, Foundation President and CEO, told the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week, “stem cell tourism should be a wake-up call that Canada needs to prioritize funding for stem cell therapies.” He says it illustrates the need for the Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, with its goal of delivering five to 10 new treatments to clinics within 10 years. He told the paper that the Action Plan will give Canadians confidence “that new therapies are a priority and ultimately, Canadians will have first access to these therapies.”
Indeed, Canada is a world leader in stem cell research. MS survivor Jennifer Molson has been symptom-free for 12 years after receiving a stem cell transplant in a clinical trial run by Dr. Harry Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital. “I’m living proof of the tremendous potential that exists with stem cell research. I got a second chance at life.” said Molson in declaring her support for the Strategy.
“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr.…
“It’s hard to put into words … to describe what it’s like to get your life given back to you in ways you never thought possible.”
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of Tina Ceroni, the Burlington, Ontario woman whose devastating Stiff Person Syndrome disease was successfully treated with a stem cell transplant by Dr. Harry Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital. Over the weekend CBC Ottawa brought the patient and the doctor together to talk about how the procedure gave her her life back after the rare autoimmune disorder had taken most of it away. You can see it here.
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. …
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.”