Study: Stem Cells May Reverse MS Damage
It's been a good month for multiple sclerosis research. As I blogged on Friday, the first oral MS drug -- an appealing and apparently effective alternative to the existing injectable therapies -- is nearing approval.
That same day The Lancet Neurology published research in which 21 people with early-stage relapsing/remitting MS were treated with stem-cell therapy to remarkable effect: Not only did the transplantation of stem cells appear to reduce relapses and curb disease progression dramatically, it also seems to have reversed some of the neurological damage caused by the disease.
It's a small study that needs big-time followup. (Recruitment for a larger, controlled trial is underway.) But the research, conducted by scientists led by Richard Burt at Northwestern University, represents a breakthrough. It's been thought that stem-cell technology could be harnessed to halt MS's progressive assault on the central nervous system. Earlier studies among people with later-stage MS, though, had shown little benefit from stem-cell treatment -- not enough to warrant taking the risks stem-cell therapy can pose. The new research suggests that the trick is to intervene early, before the disease moves to its unremitting, progressive stage, and to use a milder course of stem-cell treatment.
Also remarkable is the fact that the study was done using haemopoietic stem cells -- culled from the subjects' own bone marrow. Though President Obama's anticipated relaxation of rules regarding federal funding of stem-cell research is expected to broaden the field by making more embryonic stem cells available, the Northwestern research demonstrates that much can be done with other, less controversial lines of cells. The new research was funded entirely by the university.
This work's not without risks. Though none of the folks in the study suffered lasting side effects, all of them took a fairly big gamble. Before the harvested stem cells could be reimplanted, each participant had his or her entire immune system wiped out, rendering each person completely defenseless against infection for a brief time. That got rid of the misguided immune-system cells that for unknown reasons attack the nervous system as if it were a foreign invader and gave the new cells a clean slate upon which to work their magic.
The study's authors note that as it stands, stem-cell therapy isn't (yet) a cure for this unpredictable and often debilitating disease. But it sure is a bright ray of hope.
Posted by: dsgrano | February 2, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse
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