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Multiple Sclerosis

Mastering MS with stem cells

It may be possible soon to reverse some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis using a patients’ own primitive blood cells may be able to reverse some of the effects of multiple sclerosis, a preliminary study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests.

“This is certainly a positive development,” said Bruce Bebo, executive vice president of research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In MS the immune system devours the protective sheath (called myelin) around brain and spine fibres. There are several so-called “disease-modifying” drugs available to the condition.

These drugs can slow but not reverse the progress of MS, says Dr Richard Burt, the lead researcher on the new study. In a new approach his team “rebooted” the immune system with patients’ own blood-forming stem cells – primitive cells that mature into immune-system fighters.

For two years about 80 people who went through the procedure were followed. Half saw their score on a standard MS disability scale fall by at least one point. Of the 36 patients who were followed for four years, nearly two-thirds saw that much of an improvement. Although a one-point change on a scale called the Expanded Disability Status Scale is in itself meaningful, what is more significant is the fact that 80 per cent of the trial group did not experience any symptom flare-up.

If stem cell proves effective, it would fit in with standard MS care, although at this stage it is hard to say how. On one hand, the regimen is very intensive and expensive. “But in theory,” he said, “it would only have to be done once, and never again.”

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