MS Awareness Week 2018: 23-29 April will be the best yet for the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. With more medicines available than ever before and even tentative talk of a cure for multiple sclerosis(1), a defiant new generation is spreading the message: “I might have MS, but MS doesn’t have me.” (2)
Larissa Thomas told the MS Trust about the early days of living with MS: “recurrent transverse myelitis, blurry version, stiffness and weakness in my legs” and her diagnosis, following the discovery of lesions on her brain. Larissa’s medication has helped her a great deal, though she still has “some issues with senses, spasms and numbness… everything in my life has changed. From having issues with my short-term memory to suffering with panic disorder, anxiety and episodes of depression. But one of the worst symptoms is fatigue. Being tired all the time sucks especially when you want to do things. It feels like doing a marathon on a daily basis; your body uses energy up faster than anything else.”
Given the daily challenges Larissa faces, it is incredible to hear the grit and optimism of her message: “My MS isn’t a death sentence. It’s a part of who you are, but it makes you a stronger human because you don’t take the simple things in life for granted and you understand pain. I am young and still full of life, so I try to make the best of every situation.” (2,3)
MS affects more women than men, and an estimated 2,500,000 people worldwide have MS. One young woman who is redefining what life with MS means is Maisie. Diagnosed at just 14 years, Maisie has raised over £5000 for the MS Trust and speaks optimistically about her future: “I am so grateful that my MS was diagnosed, therefore meaning that I can begin treatment soon.” Maisie hopes that a regular Rebif injection will give her “the same as any other teenager… I’m proud that I’m able to promote my illness and share my story with the rest of the MS community. After all, I am not defined by having multiple sclerosis, it is just an aspect of my life…
Today we are only able to say that stem cells may be able to cure MS, but by MS Awareness Week 2020 we could be giving a confidant: Yes!
Stem cells are effective in treating autoimmune diseases because they can become any cell in the body based on their environment. For decades, stem cell transplants have been used to “reset the immune system” of patients who have cancers of the blood and immune systems(6) and in the past two years there have been some “miraculous”(4) results from stem cell transplants for multiple sclerosis.
In 2016 the BBC’s Panorama featured MS patient Holly Drewry, who was wheelchair-bound after the birth of her daughter:“I couldn’t walk steadily. I couldn’t trust myself holding her in case I fell. Being a new mum I wanted to do it all properly but my MS was stopping me.” Within days of her stem cell transplant, Holly noticed changes: “I walked out of the hospital. I walked into my house and hugged Isla. I cried and cried. It was a bit overwhelming. It was a miracle.”(7,4)
Professor Basil Sharrack, a consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, told The Telegraph newspaper: “Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous. This is not a word I would use lightly, but we have seen profound neurological improvements.”
Brad Hoffman, an associate professor in the departments of paediatrics and neuroscience at the University of Florida, is also excited about the ramifications of the latest research.“As with most viral gene delivery systems, the treatment would be a one-and-done,” Hoffman said. “Upon receiving the initial treatment, the patient would develop a natural immunity against the gene delivery virus which generally prevents its repetitive use.”
The MS Trust avoid caution, however: “Although stem cell therapy is routinely used for conditions such as cancer of the blood (leukaemia), it’s still largely seen as an experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS).”(9)
The Parents’ Guide to Cord Blood Foundation (PGCBF) found that a treatment for MS could be found in umbilical cord blood or in umbilical cord tissue. Cord blood contains haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and is already used to treat diseases of the immune system, like MS. Furthermore, cord tissue contains mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which have huge therapeutic potential: according the PGCBF “the majority of patients in clinical trials that use cell therapy to treat autoimmune diseases receive infusions of mesenchymal stem cells.”
Cord blood and cord tissue can both be preserved at the time of birth, enabling families to access to matching stem cells, should a member of the family suffer from MS now or in the future. The HSCs and cord tissue can be kept for at least 25 years and can also be used for over 80 other diseases and conditions.
Images of Larisa and Maisie are from the MS Trust
Image of Holly, from The Telegraph