The Leading Edge

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Multiple Sclerosis

Stem cells for multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects approximately 2.3 million people around the world, causing symptoms ranging from blurred vision to extreme fatigue and partial or complete paralysis. MS occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the central nervous system.

Nearly a dozen drugs can reduce the chance of an MS relapse, but none is able to stop or repair the damage that leads to permanent disability.

Now, a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital has shown that an intensive procedure involving stem cells and chemotherapy can do just that. The procedure is called immunoablation and autologous hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation (IAHSCT). It completely wipes out a patient’s diseased immune system and regenerates a new healthy one using the individual’s own stem cells.

Drs. Harold Atkins and Mark Freedman enrolled 24 patients with aggressive relapsing MS into their trial. After IAHSCT treatment, clinical relapses and new brain inflammation completely stopped in all patients. In addition, 70 per cent were free from disease progression and 40 per cent experienced a lasting reversal of symptoms such as vision loss, muscle weakness and balance problems.

“Our trial is the first to show the complete, long-term suppression of all inflammatory activity in people with MS,” said Dr. Atkins, a stem-cell transplant physician and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “This is very exciting. However, it is important to note that this therapy can have serious side effects and risks, and would only be appropriate for a small proportion of people with very active MS rather than those with a significant long-time disability.”

People interested in this therapy should speak with their neurologist, who can request a referral to The Ottawa Hospital MS Clinic or another hospital with experience in this area.

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