Saturday, July 30, 2011

Can Stem Cells Stop MS?

Later this year, a small clinical trial will begin in Europe to test the use of stem cells to manage or possibly reverse the progress of multiple sclerosis, a disease in which a patient's immune system attacks the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells from damage. The disease tends to first strike when a patient is in their 20s and 30s, and it causes a range of symptoms (which vary widely by patient) such as fatigue, numbness, and balance problems.

For the trial, stem cells will be taken from patients' bone marrow and then injected into their blood, Pallab Ghosh reported for BBC News Health ("Doctors begin major stem cell trial for MS patients"). Promising earlier studies have used these stem cells to "retrain" the patient's immune system not to attack the myelin sheath.

Multiple sclerosis is more common in areas farther from the equator, such as the UK and the northern United States, as this fascinating geographic map of cases illustrates. The incidence of MS appears to be increasing, particularly among women, with some blaming the Western diet and vitamin D deficiency.

Ghosh points out that this trial also aims to address the problem of medical tourism among MS patients, who sometimes seek expensive and unproven stem cell treatments outside the UK. The trial will provide scientific evidence of the efficacy of stem cell treatment.

The phase II trial begins at the end of the year, investigating whether stem cell treatment is effective in human subjects and what side effects it might cause. The trial includes 150 patients and is predicted to take five years, with a possible phase III trial (comparing stem cell treatment to standard MS treatments) to follow before any new treatment can be brought to market.

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