New MS Treatment: Big Hope from Little Cells

Stem cell transplants for multiple sclerosis patients tied to improved symptoms and quality of life

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) may offer hope to patients where there was none before.

A new study found that stem cell transplants improved physical function and quality of life in MS patients.

The authors of this study concluded that future treatment regimens using stem cell transplants may slow the development of MS among patients in the first phase of the disease.

“To our knowledge, this is the first report of significant and sustained improvement in the [disability] score following any treatment for MS,” wrote lead study author Richard K. Burt, MD, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleagues.

MS is a disease that damages the central nervous system, making it increasingly difficult for patients to move, think and perform everyday tasks without help. Symptoms include numbness and tingling, physical incoordination and extreme fatigue. Also, MS patients may have trouble with memory, thinking and focusing.

During the first phase of MS, patients experience “attacks” or flare-ups (called relapses) of symptoms that taper off. During the second phase, disease symptoms gradually become worse. Currently, there are no known therapies that cure MS or reverse symptoms.

In this nonrandomized study, Dr. Burt and team used stem cells from the patients’ own bodies in hopes of “resetting” the immune systems of 145 patients. Stem cells are special cells that can replace diseased cells and create more healthy cells in the body.

Most of the study patients were in the first phase of MS, but some had moved to the second phase.

After two years, half of the patients reported improvements in their level of disability. After four years, 64 percent of these patients reported improvements.

Also, 80 percent of these patients were relapse-free after four years.

Stem cell transplants were also tied to improved quality of life and fewer lesions on the brain. Brain lesions often occur in MS patients.

Dr. Burt and team concluded that stem cell treatment could improve symptoms for patients in the first phase of MS.

In an editorial about the current study, Stephen L. Hauser, MD, of the University of California, wrote that stem cell treatment “does not appear to be effective against established progressive forms of MS.”

Dr. Hauser also noted that this study did not make clear that the patients reaped benefits from the actual stem cell transplant, rather than other factors related to treatment. He argued that more evidence about stem cell treatment is needed.

“Many important disability-related outcomes take many years or decades to develop,” Dr. Hauser concluded.

This study was nonrandomized, meaning Dr. Burt and team did not randomly assign patients into treatment groups. Randomized studies are considered to be higher quality research.

The study and editorial were published Jan. 20 in JAMA.

This research was funded by the Danhakl family, the Cumming Foundation, the Zakat Foundation, the McNamara Purcell Foundation, and Morgan Stanley and Company. Two of the authors had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies.

Review Date: 
January 21, 2015
Last Updated:
January 26, 2015