Infusing multiple sclerosis patients with their own immune stem cells appears to help the immune system "reset" itself and fight off the disease, according to a study that will be published online Friday in the Lancet Neurology.
The study, an early-phase research project involving only 21 patients, is similar to other experiments in which a patient's own stem cells are used to treat autoimmune diseases. The treatment, called autologous non-myeloablative haematopoietic stem-cell transplantation, has also shown promising results in people with lupus and diabetes.
In the new study, Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, selected people ages 20 to 53 who had early-stage MS (they had been diagnosed an average of five years) and who had not responded to at least six months of treatment with interferon beta, the standard treatment for the disease. The patients underwent chemotherapy to destroy their immune systems and were then injected with their own immune system cells that had been removed before the chemotherapy. After an average of three years of follow-up, 17 patients (81%) had improved significantly. Some have seen their symptoms disappear.
Barry Goudy, 50, entered the trial in 2003 after the medications he was taking for MS began to falter. "I would fall out of remission and have to be admitted to the hospital," says Goudy, who lives in Michigan. "I would get numbness in my legs; very fatigued. I couldn't climb stairs." Since the stem-cell transplantation, however, he has been free of symptoms. "I feel normal now," he said in an interview with The Times. "I feel like I did prior to 1995 when I was diagnosed -- young and full of energy."
"This is the first time we have turned the tide on this disease," Burt said in a news release. "In MS the immune system is attacking your brain. After the procedure, it doesn't do that anymore."
More research is needed to assess the treatment, including a large, randomized, controlled trial, said Dr. Gianluigi Mancardi, of the University of Genova, Italy, in an editorial accompanying the study. Burt has begun such a study. Previous studies showed the treatment was unsuccessful on people with late-stage multiple sclerosis.
-- Shari Roan
Photo: In multiple sclerosis, the body's immune system attacks myelin, the substance that covers nerves and permits them to function properly. Credit: National Multiple Sclerosis Society