Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa have discovered a remarkable new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS), one which has been called a miracle cure.
The aggressive treatment involves both stem cell transplantation and chemotherapy used to rebuild the patient’s immune system almost from scratch, so far producing very encouraging results. In a long-term study just released in the journal The Lancet, researchers describes how a majority of study participants not only found that the treatment halted the progression of their MS but produced a complete remission, without the need for drugs to further manage their disease.
The research team describes it as, “The first treatment to fully halt all detectable central nervous system inflammatory activity in patients with multiple sclerosis for a prolonged period in the absence of any ongoing disease-modifying drugs.”
Affecting about 100,000 Canadians and 20 million people worldwide, multiple sclerosis or MS is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s own immune system starts to attack itself, causing damage to the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord and affecting many of the body’s systems including motor skills, vision, hearing, mood and memory. While rarely fatal, the disease can be debilitating even with the use of drugs to reduce inflammation in the central nervous system and help with the management of symptoms.
The study involved 24 patients between the ages of 18 and 50, all of whom presented with an early aggressive form of MS which was not responding to other treatments. Using a procedure commonly intended to merely suppress the immune system -which involves extracting the patient’s bone marrow stem cells, a round of chemotherapy and then reintroducing the stem cells- doctors upped the ante by completely destroying the patient’s immune system with a stronger chemotherapy regime, hoping to eliminate any damaged immune cells from the central nervous system and forcing the body to build up its immunity from the ground up.
The aggressive treatment is greatly taxing to the body and leaves the person in a severely vulnerable state without immunity defenses. In the clinical trials, one of the 24 participants died from hepatic necrosis and sepsis due to the chemotherapy. Ultimately, the other 23 patients experienced no relapses following the treatment, during periods ranging between four and 13 years. The study concluded that 70 per cent of patients were free of all MS symptoms, lesions and disabilities three years after treatment, a result some have described as “miraculous”.
“It still appears like a miracle to me to see patients recover, and get back to the things that they were supposed to do in life,” says Dr. Harry Atkins of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and lead author of the study. “It is very rewarding to see and it wasn’t what we expected, and we are overjoyed about it to know this treatment can help people in that way.”
Researchers caution that the small sample size of 24 participants means that larger clinical trials need to be conducted to confirm the results, along with the fact that the treatment is not suitable for all forms of MS and that the aggressive treatment represents a “poor safety profile” which is a cause for concern. Nevertheless, hopes are high.
“Everyone is hesitating to use the ‘c word,’ but these patients are cured,” says Michael Rudnicki, director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, who was not involved with the research.