Another experiment gone wrong may provide hope for the one million+ global sufferers of the incurable illness, Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Symptoms of MS include loss of sight, numbness and/or weakness in limbs and mobility is usually affected. Seven years ago volunteers were given stem cell transplants in an attempt to jumpstart their immune systems. Doctors wanted to watch the disease redevelop and better understand the illness. Traditionally MS is considered an auto-immune disease, in which
the immune system mistakenly attacks the fatty sheath that protects nerve strands. Patients lose their mobility as the
thin strands that connect nerve cells wither away. The experiment is a glorious failure.
Instead of redeveloping the illness, patients have gone into remission!
Dr Mark Freedman of the University of Ottawa is not sure why. “Not a single patient, and it’s almost seven years, has ever had a relapse,” he said.
“We weren’t looking for improvement,” Freedman told a stem cell seminar, “the actual study was to reboot the immune system. We figured we would reboot the immune system and watch the disease evolve. It failed.”
They had anticipated an initial improvement but expected the condition to deteriorate after a year. Improvements began two years after treatment and brain lesions have disappeared. As MS patients often experience changes in their symptoms, Freedman
says his team must study the patients longer before they can say more.
The treatment is not without risk. A patient died when the chemotherapy used to kill his bone marrow also destroyed his liver.
“We are trying to find out what is happening and what could possibly be the source of repair,” Freedman said.
This might be linked to cytokines that are secreted by immune cells. They may be able to direct cells, even stem cells, to regenerate.
When asked about the treatment he said that patients “with a lot of inflammation going on were the most likely to benefit.”
“We need some degree of inflammation. While inflammation may be the process that destroys myelin, it could be that the body needs some inflammation to make repairs.”