Last night on the UK’s BBC television, its leading documentary programme Panorama aired an episode entitled Can you stop my Multiple Sclerosis?
It followed four people with relapsing remitting MS as they were given bone marrow transplants that are more usually reserved for cancer patients. I say ‘transplant ‘ but the stem cells are taken from the individual patient, so there is no risk of rejection.
The treatment – known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) – aims to destroy the faulty immune system using chemotherapy. It is then rebuilt with stem cells harvested from the patient’s own blood. These cells are at such an early stage they’ve not developed the flaws that trigger MS.
Now, as my MS is not the relapsing remitting type, this treatment would not be right for me but, as I watched the programme, it was a delight to see some real progress being made treatment and remarkable improvement in the lives of those for whom it is suitable. If a similar treatment could help me, would I take it? Once it had been proved to be safe, yes of course – wouldn’t you?
The treatment is being pioneered in the UK by two consultants at Yorkshire’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital where 20 patients have been treated so far. Neurologist Prof Basil Sharrack said: “To have a treatment which can potentially reverse disability is really a major achievement.”
Prof John Snowden, consultant haematologist, said: “The immune system is being reset or rebooted back to a time point before it caused MS. It’s clear we have made a big impact on patients’ lives, which is gratifying.”
The treatment involves intensive chemotherapy, so patients are warned that there are side-effects such as nausea and hair loss.
Prof Richard Burt, of Northwestern University, Chicago, carried out the first HSCT for MS in 1995. He said: “There has been resistance to this in the pharma and academic world. This is not a technology you can patent and we have achieved this without industry backing.”
A study published last year involving MS patients in Chicago, USA, showed significant reductions in neurological disability and, for some, the improvements persisted for at least four years – although there was no comparative control group. The outcome of a more detailed international trial – which will report in a couple of years – could determine whether the stem cell transplant becomes a standard NHS treatment for many MS patients.
A note of caution was later voiced by Dr Emma Gray, head of clinical trials at UK’s MS Society. She said: “Ongoing research suggests stem cell treatments such as HSCT could offer hope and it’s clear that in the cases highlighted by Panorama they’ve had a life-changing impact.
“However, trials have found that while HSCT may be able to stabilise or improve disability in some people with MS it may not be effective for all types of the condition.”
Dr Gray said people should be aware it was an “aggressive treatment that comes with significant risks”, but called for more research into HSCT so there could be greater understanding of its safety and long term effectiveness.