Stem cell transplants may be more effective than current drug therapies like mitoxantrone for people with severe cases of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), according to new studies. The study, published in the medical journal Neurology®, the medical journal for the American Academy of Neurology, involved 21 people whose disability increased over the previous year although they were on conventional medications used to fight the debilitation of MS.
MS works by using the body’s own immune system to attack the central nervous system, causing progressively worse disability. In the published study, the participants were an average age of 36, with an average disability of requiring a cane or crutch to walk. The phase II experiment began by having all of the patients receive medication to suppress their immune system activity. The first 12 participants received the drug mitoxantrone, which reduces immune system activity. This treatment was compared to the other 9 patients who first had their bone marrow stem cells harvested, then received the mitoxantrone, and then had the stem cells reintroduced through a vein once their immune system was suppressed. The theory being that, over time, the cells migrate to the bone marrow and produce new cells that become good immune cells. The participants were then followed for up to 4 years.
The effectiveness of the treatments was compared by looking at which treatment allowed for less brain damage and growth of new lesions. Those who received the stem cell treatment had 80 percent fewer new areas of brain damage called T2 lesions than those who received just mitoxantrone (an average of 2.5 new lesions compared to an average of 8, respectfully). Looking at another type of lesion, called the gadolinium-enhancing lesions, those who received the stem cell treatment had no new lesions while 56 percent of those taking mitoxantrone had at least 1 new lesion.
This study is still at a phase II point, using only a small sample size, and knowing who received what treatment. Still, the data points to the efficacy of stem cell treatments over conventional drug therapies such as mitoxantrone in fighting more severe MS. The next step would be to have a much larger population, double-blinded study. This type of study would have less bias as neither the patient nor examiner knows who received which treatment, and the larger sample size would help to produce more generalizable results. There are still several stages and hurdles to overcome before stem cell treatments have the chance to replace conventional drug therapies, but these results once again show that there is almost no limit to the medical possibilities of stem cells.