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Can stem cell therapy really treat multiple sclerosis?

The ConversationMultiple sclerosis (MS) sufferer Eric Thompson was able to rise from his wheelchair and walk just days after treatment with haematopoietic stem cells, according to a recent Daily Mail article. Unable to receive this aggressive treatment through the NHS, Thompson and his family raised £40,000 to undergo the treatment in Mexico.

The treatment Thompson received is called autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT). It involves extracting stem cells from the affected person’s bone marrow or blood. After the person has undergone intensive chemotherapy to wipe out their immune system, the stem cells are then reintroduced. It’s done to try to reboot the immune system. The use of intensive high-dose chemotherapy and the transplant process is an arduous procedure for this potent treatment.

According to Cancer Research UK donor stem cell transplants are used as a treatment for some types of cancer, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. However, it’s probably premature to recommend AHSCT as a treatment for MS.

Although it is not available on the NHS, the MS Society UK report a number of studies using the treatment for MS and they have shown promise, demonstrating a reduction in relapse for some people, stabilisation and even some reversal of disability. However, the MS Society also highlights that this is not the case for every MS patient. The treatment is aggressive and has significant risks.

Stem cell trials show promise. from www.shutterstock.com

Clinical Trials

A number of AHSCT trials for MS are taking place, including the ASTIMS trial, published March 2015. This was conducted on 21 patients with relapsing remitting MS (individuals have distinct bouts of symptoms) or secondary progressive MS (disability builds up independent of relapses). Those having AHSCT showed a significantly greater reduction in relapses compared to patients having mitoxantrone.

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