Stem cell therapy continues to show promise as an effective treatment for more advanced multiple sclerosis, albeit not without risk. Results from studies that have been ongoing for many years are slowly being published, including data from a Canadian study of immunoablation (wiping out the immune system with chemotherapy) and autologous haemopoietic stem-cell transplantation (transplantation of a patient's own bone marrow-derived stem cells), also known as IA-HSCT, for aggressive multiple sclerosis.
The Canadian study — a small phase II trial led by Drs. Mark Freedman and Harold Atkins — enrolled 24 patients with aggressive MS who underwent the chemotherapy/stem cell therapy procedure. Results demonstrated that IA-HSCT was effective in halting disease progression (no relapses and no new gadolinium-enhancing or T2 lesions) in about 67 percent of participants in the three years post-treatment. Sixteen patients experienced no increase in disability, seven patients experienced continued increase in disability, and one patient died from treatment-related complications. To date, surviving participants have been followed for four to 13 years, and 35 percent have experienced reduced disability.
Earlier reports of this type of stem cell therapy in MS were discussed in the journal Neurology (Freedman and Atkins, 2004), followed by a more recent "Top 10 Lessons Learned" article appearing in Neurotherapeutics (Atkins and Freedman, 2012). The MS patient profiled in the current stories circulating the internet, Jennifer Molson, initially shared her story in 2010. It's great to see that she continues to do so well 14 years after treatment.
Similar studies have taken place in the United States. Last year, three-year interim results of the HALT-MS (High-Dose Immunosuppressive Therapy and Autologous Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation for Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, or HDIT/HCT) trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health were published in JAMA Neurology (Nash et al., 2015). Among 24 individuals with RRMS who underwent HDIT/HCT treatment, 90.9 percent were progression-free and 86.3 percent were relapse-free at three years’ post-procedure. These interim results are impressive; however, there are anecdotal reports from select participants in the HALT-MS trial who have reported disease activity returning after the three-year mark.
Patients in the U.S. have traveled to Russia and Chicago to undergo the same/similar stem cell therapy for years. I have a blogging friend who went to Russia for treatment and hasn't experienced any signs of MS since. Another vocal proponent of the therapy who went to Chicago to be treated by Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University has shared her story throughout social media. I only mention this to point out that the "cure" reported in the news last week is not new at all. However, each trial helps researchers to better identify the types of MS patients**, those with active inflammation,** who would most benefit from this procedure which carries significant risks.
Dr. Burt is currently recruiting people with relapsing MS who have inflammatory disease activity despite disease-modifying therapy to participate in a study which will compare autologous haemopoietic stem-cell transplantation (aHSCT) with standard therapy for MS (such as interferon beta 1-a, interferon beta 1-b, glatiramer acetate, mitoxantrone, natalizumab, fingolimod, or dimethyl fumarate). Details are included at Clinicaltrials.gov and you can find additional information about Dr. Burt and the history of HSCT research at Northwestern University on Northwestern's website.
Finally, if you are interested in connecting with other MS patients who have undergone or are considering HSCT therapy, check out the Hematopioetic Stem Cell Transplant Facebook group.
See more helpful articles:
Atkins HL, Bowman M, et al. Immunoablation and autologous haemopoietic stem-cell transplantation for aggressive multiple sclerosis: a multicentre single-group phase 2 trial. The Lancet. Published online: June 9, 2016. DOI:
Atkins HL, Freedman MS. Hematopoietic Stem Cell Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis: Top 10 Lessons Learned. Neurotherapeutics. 2013;10(1):68-76. doi:10.1007/s13311-012-0162-5.
"This isn't hype: Canadian doctors just reversed severe MS using stem cells," by Julia Belluz and Javier Zarracina on June 9, 2016. Vox.com. Accessed at http://www.vox.com/2016/6/9/11898512/multiple-sclerosis-stem-cell-chemo
"‘I got a second chance at life': An aggressive Canadian treatment offers stunning results for MS patients," by Jennifer Yang on June 9, 2016. Thestar.com. Accessed at https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/06/09/i-got-a-second-chance-at-life-an-aggressive-canadian-treatment-offers-stunning-results-for-ms-patients.html