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Stem cell treatment hopes for MS

New process involves wiping out immune system and rebooting with new cells

Mark Gould

Monday, 19 March 2018

Doctors say that procedure which involves ‘wiping out’ a patient’s immune system with cancer drugs and then rebooting it with stem cells could be of major benefit in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Results from an international trial show that it was able to stop the disease and improve symptoms. Just over 100 patients took part in the trial, in hospitals in Chicago, Sheffield, Uppsala in Sweden and Sao Paolo in Brazil. They all had relapsing remitting MS - where attacks or relapses are followed by periods of remission.

The interim results were released at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation in Lisbon this week. The patients received either haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or drug treatment.

After one year, only one relapse occurred among the stem cell group compared with 39 in the drug group. After an average follow-up of three years, the transplants had failed in three out of 52 patients (6%), compared with 30 of 50 (60%) in the control group. Those in the transplant group experienced a reduction in disability, whereas symptoms worsened in the drug group.

Professor Richard Burt, lead investigator, of Northwestern University Chicago, told the BBC: "The data is stunningly in favour of transplant against the best available drugs - the neurological community has been sceptical about this treatment, but these results will change that."

The treatment uses chemotherapy to destroy the faulty immune system. Stem cells taken from the patient's blood and bone marrow are then re-infused. These are unaffected by MS and they rebuild the immune system.

Professor John Snowden, director of blood and bone marrow transplantation at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: "We are thrilled with the results - they are a game changer for patients with drug-resistant and disabling multiple sclerosis".

Doctors stress it is not suitable for all MS patients and the process can be gruelling, involving chemotherapy and a few weeks in isolation in hospital.

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at the MS Society, said the stem cell transplant HSCT "will soon be recognised as an established treatment in England - and when that happens our priority will be making sure those who could benefit can actually get it".

She added: "We've seen life-changing results for some people and having that opportunity can't depend on your postcode."

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