A nerve cell. Source: Pixabay

A new clinical trial indicates that stem cell transplants can prevent the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). The transplants also helped to improve the symptoms of patients. The results of the trial were presented at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation yesterday.

Multiple sclerosis is a neuromuscular disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord, resulting in complications with vision, limb movement, and balance, as well as slightly reducing life expectancy. The disease is relatively common, affecting 100,000 diagnosed people in the UK, and can vary dramatically in severity, with some patients able to manage their symptoms through medical treatment. Notably however, the disease is lifelong; there is currently no cure for the condition.

A new study may be able to change that. The findings were announced as part of the opening ceremony of the meeting, in a talk entitled: ‘Non-myeloablative Haematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation Versus Continued Disease Modifying Therapies (Dmt) in Patients with Highly Active Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis.’

The talk discussed a new approach to MS treatment that relies on wiping out a patient’s immune system with chemotherapy drugs, and then infusing them with transplanted haematopoietic stem cells from bone marrow. As the stem cells are unaffected by MS, they can generate new immunological cells that do not have the disease.

To test this treatment, the research team developed a clinical trial involving 102 patients in the USA, the UK, Sweden, and Brazil. All of the participants had a form of MS known as Relapsing Remitting MS, which is characterised by sudden attacks that are followed by a period of remission. To provide a control, the 100 patients were split into two groups: one which receive stem cell transplants, and one which would be treated with traditional drug therapies.

After 12 months, the stem cell group had only seen one relapse, in comparison to 39 in the control group. Over three years, the number of relapses in the stem cell group rose to 3 out of 52, whereas the control group saw 30 relapses from 50 patients. The team also noted that the patients in the transplant group reported a reduction in symptom severity over the course of the trial, while the drug control group demonstrated worsening symptoms over time.

These results could change the way we treat MS in the future, but for now more work needs to be done. In particular, there is a need for larger clinical trials that studies the effectiveness and safety of the treatment in a broader number of patients.