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.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the work that Drs. Mark Freedman and Harry Atkins are doing to fight multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases with stem cells. We have profiled both doctors and featured patients like Jennifer Molson, who had her MS eliminated by the treatment more than a decade ago.
On Friday, the Ottawa Citizen provided a comprehensive update headlined ‘Ottawa doctors behind breakthrough multiple sclerosis study.” The report focuses on Alex Normandin, who was a third-year medical student in Montreal when he became patient No. 19 of 24 in the original trial and underwent his bone marrow stem cell transplant in 2008. Now a practising MD, he told the paper that “Life is great.”
So far, more than 30 MS patients have been treated with stem cell transplants arising from the Ottawa study, which received funding from the Research Foundation of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.
It is not a treatment to be entered into lightly: the extreme chemotherapy patients go through before their own fortified stem cells are reintroduced to reboot their immune systems can be fatal.
However, in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of MS — between 55,000 to 75,000 Canadians are affected —- such innovative treatments are enormously encouraging.
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).
A new clinical trial in Ottawa and Winnipeg will investigate the ability of stem cells to suppress inflammation and repair nerve tissue for people with Multiple Sclerosis, researchers announced Thursday.…
A new clinical trial in Ottawa and Winnipeg will investigate the ability of stem cells to suppress inflammation and repair nerve tissue for people with Multiple Sclerosis, researchers announced Thursday.
“The MS Society of Canada is proud to be investing in the first Canadian clinical trial studying the ability of mesenchymal stem cells to treat multiple sclerosis,” Yves Savoie, President and CEO, MS Society of Canada, said in a media release. “As Canada has the highest rate of the MS in the world, we are excited that Canadian researchers are among the leaders in developing a novel and effective cell-based treatment.”
The $4.2-million clinical trial, co-led by the University of Ottawa’s Dr. Mark Freedman and Dr. James J. Marriott of the University of Manitoba, is called MESCAMS (for MEsenchymal Stem cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients). It will involve 40 patients — 20 in each city — who will receive either mesenchymal stem cells extracted from their own bone marrow or a mock solution to see if the effects of the stem cells are real or triggered by a “placebo effect.”
For information about clinical trial eligibility and enrollment, click here.
“This is absolutely the kind of clinical trial that Canadians will see more of with the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan,” said James Price, CEO & President of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. “The Strategy is about bringing more clinical trials to Canada so that Canadians have early access to therapies that are proven to be safe and effective.”
As reported by Elizabeth Payne in the Ottawa Citizen, recent publicity around hockey legend Gordie Howe’s experimental stem cell treatment in Tijuana for stroke has focused attention on a growing international stem cell tourism industry offering unproven, untested therapies. “There is so much noise about stem cells in general and the hype that surrounds them, we are doing this study properly so we can answer the question for once and for all,” Dr. Freedman told the newspaper.
“Canada has a world-class stem cell sector and we are poised to bring new treatments to the clinic,” said Mr. Price. “That’s why implementing the Action Plan is so important. It will mean that rigorously tested, safe and effective therapies are developed right here at home.”
Readers of this blog may be familiar with the story of Jennifer Molson who took part in a previous stem cell trial in Ottawa conducted by Dr. Freedman and Dr. Harry Atkins. She is now free from all her previously debilitating MS symptoms. Unlike that study, which involved transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells to re-boot the immune system, there is no requirement for chemotherapy in MESCAMS.
The MESCAMS trial is part of a larger, international research effort led by Dr. Freedman and Dr. Antonio Uccelli at the University of Genoa in Italy. The international effort links researchers from nine countries who are undertaking parallel research.
Funding for the trial, announced by the MS Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation, is also being provided by Research Manitoba and A&W Food Services of Canada.
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.
Today is the official launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan to chart the course for Canada to lead the way in bringing up to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic by 2025.…
Today is the official launch of the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan to chart the course for Canada to lead the way in bringing up to 10 breakthrough therapies to the clinic by 2025.
The 10-year Action Plan outlined in a new report Following Through: Realizing the Promise of Stem Cells – A Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan (2015-2025) was created by scientists, medical professionals, leaders from major health charities, industry experts and philanthropists. It is backed up by an in-depth study by KPMG and has been endorsed by an international panel of experts. The report explains how Canada can transform health care and reduce suffering and death from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, vision loss, spinal cord injury and other devastating conditions.
Multiple sclerosis survivor Jennifer Molson was on hand at a press conference on Parliament Hill to support the Action Plan. Molson has been symptom-free for 12 years after receiving a stem cell transplant in a Canadian-led clinical trial. “I’m living proof of the tremendous potential that exists with stem cell research. I got a second chance at life. This Action Plan will help others like me live free of illness and disease.”
“Canada has always been a leader in stem cell research,” said James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. “With this Action Plan and the infrastructure already in place, we have the capacity to transform health care in Canada by helping millions of Canadians through new, life-changing therapies and long-term economic growth.”
Dr. Janet Rossant, head of research at SickKids Hospital, said the time is right for Canada to seize the opportunity to move stem cell science forward: “We are at an incredibly exciting time in science where our research is leading to new treatments and therapies.”
“I’m proud to be a part of this historic coalition,” said Dr. Allen Eaves, Founder and CEO of STEMCELL Technologies Inc. “The Action Plan is ready to move forward and already has received private-sector support. Support from all governments will ensure companies like mine are able to create local jobs and, most importantly, transform stem cell research into tangible products and lifesaving therapies.”
- The Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan calls for a $1.5-billion public-private investment over 10 years, including a $50-million average scaled annual commitment by the Government of Canada.
- The Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine estimates the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan could generate more than 12,000 jobs for Canadians via the growth of existing companies and the development of new enterprises that reach global markets.
- In 2013, more than $200 billion was spent on health care in Canada. Two thirds of that money was used to treat incurable diseases. Stem cell research, cell therapy and regenerative medicine are working towards treatment options for these diseases.
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.…
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.
The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.…
The day before 3,600 scientists, clinicians, educators and industry professionals from around the world gather in Vancouver next week for the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers’ summit, the public will get a chance to hear about the ‘real deal’ on stem cells.
Moderated by the Vancouver Sun’s Pamela Fayerman, the Tuesday, June 17th symposium focuses on why stem cells, which have been hailed for the past two decades as having the potential to fight so many diseases, have — with some notable exceptions — been slow to deliver.
The panel that includes Prof. Timothy Caulfield, author of The Cure for Everything and member of our Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, and stem cell transplant recipient Jennifer Molson will tackle the question: Why is it taking so long to make these promised therapies a reality? Industry investment expert Gregory Bonfiglio of Proteus Venture Partners and University of British Columbia stem cell researcher Dr. Kelly McNagny will also share their views.
It’s an important question. The translation of stem cell research discoveries into stem cell therapies takes a long time. It includes securing funding, getting regulatory approvals and conducting rigorous — and hugely expensive — clinical trials. In the meantime, unregulated clinics are popping up around the planet, offering “miracle” stem cell cures that have not been proven safe or effective.
The symposium, sponsored by the Stem Cell Network and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine, will be held in the OmniMax Theatre at Science World at TELUS World of Science. For more information, click 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.”