Doctors have described the use of stem cells to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) as a “game changer” and have welcomed the results of an international trial showing that stem cells can leave patients symptom-free.
“It feels like a miracle”
Louise Willets has described how her life has been given back to her by a revolutionary treatment that uses stem cells to treat patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).
In an interview with BBC Medical Correspondent, Fergus Walsh, Louise described how “MS ruled my life”. Louise was just 28 when she was diagnosed with MS but found that she “lived in fear of the next relapse.”
The worst time was not being able to get out of bed because I had no stability in my body – I struggled to walk and even spent time in a wheelchair. It also affected my cognition – it was like a brain fog and I misread words and struggled to keep up with conversations.
Louise, now 36 is now symptom-free and told Walsh: “It feels like a miracle.”
The BBC’s Panorama filmed Louise undergoing her transplant in October 2015. Now she is back to full health. She got married to her partner Steve, on the first anniversary of her transplant, and their baby daughter Joy is now a month old.
I feel like my diagnosis was just a bad dream. I live every day as I want to, rather than planning my life around my MS.
100,000 people in the UK have MS, which attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include:
- vision distortion and impairment
- difficulties with arm or leg movement
- reduced or impaired sensations
- difficulties with balance
- Average life expectancy is slightly reduced
Over 100 patients took part in the international trial, in hospitals in Chicago, Sheffield, Uppsala and Sao Paulo. All had been diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS – where attacks or relapses are followed by periods of remission.
The stem cell transplant involves using a cancer drug to destroy much of the patient’s damaged immune system before replenishing it with a transplant of healthy stem cells. The experience is gruelling and doctors have emphasised that it may not suit all patients.
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at the MS Society, noted the “life-changing results” she had seen from haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) and said that the treatment “will soon be recognised as an established treatment in England”The transplant costs around £30,000, which is about the same as the annual price of some MS drugs.
Cord blood treatments for MS
Cord blood contains the same type of stem cells, haematopoietic stem cells, as doctors used to treat Louise. The stem cells in cord blood are younger, healthier and less likely to result in complications such as graft-versus-host disease than those in bone marrow. Cord blood stem cells can also be collected and stored for decades so that they are available should any member of the family become unwell.
The Parents Guide to Cord Blood has explained the potential for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis to be treated with cord blood:
today’s adult patients are undergoing autologous transplants with stem cells harvested from their bone marrow or peripheral blood, today’s children could use their own cord blood for autologous transplants if they develop an autoimmune disease later in life. Another advantage of patients using their own stem cells is that the transplant requires less severe chemotherapy conditioning, which decreases the risk of complications such as life-threatening infections.