Stem Cell Therapy Shows Promise for MS Patients

March 17, 2015

A preliminary Northwestern study suggests that nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation may reverse disability and improve quality of life for patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is an immune-mediated disorder of the central nervous system often arising in young adulthood. It damages the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms that range from fatigue to paralysis throughout life.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association included 145 patients with MS who underwent nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, a low-intensity stem cell therapy that uses a patient’s own blood-forming cells to reset the immune system.

“The drugs currently used to treat MS slow progression of disability,” says Richard Burt, MD, chief of medicine: immunotherapy and autoimmune diseases. “We show that one-time stem cell treatment can not only slow progression, but also reverse disability.”

Burt and colleagues examined the association between the stem cell transplantation and outcomes for patients with relapsing-remitting MS (the most common subtype of the disease, which is marked by periodic attacks followed by partial or complete recovery) and secondary-progressive MS (a more severe form of the disease without relapses, which follows relapsing-remitting MS).

Measuring disability on the Expanded Disability Status Scale, the study showed significant improvement for 50 percent of patients tested two years after treatment and for 64 percent of those tested after 4 years. There were also improvements in physical and cognitive function, quality of life scores, and volume of brain lesions seen in MRI. These findings were seen only in patients with relapsing-remitting MS.

“These results are very promising and they could change the goal-line in this disease,” Burt says. “But a caveat is that you have to select the right group of patients.”

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Richard Burt