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Stem Cell Hope for MS

26 September 2023

A new study from Swedish researchers suggests that a stem cell treatment, normally used to treat blood cancers, could be given as part of routine clinical care to slow the progression of relapsing remitting MS. 

In autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (aHSCT), blood cells taken from a patient are treated with chemotherapy and then transplanted back into the patient to try and reset the immune system. The procedure has already shown promise for patients with relapsing remitting MS in clinical trials and the new study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, suggests that it also works when given as standard treatment.

Relapsing remitting MS is the most common form of the disease, in which symptoms flare up followed by a period of recovery. The new study looked at 174 patients in Sweden who received a stem cell transplant between 2004 and 2020. Patients averaged 1.7 relapses in the year before treatment, which reduced to one relapse every 30th year after treatment. 

The research team found no evidence of disease activity in 73% of people treated after five years, and in 65% after ten years. Among 149 MS patients with some disability to begin with, 54% saw an improvement in symptoms, 37% remained stable and 9% got worse. A small number of patients required intensive care or developed infections, but none died as a result of the treatment. 

The study had no comparative group to offer a definitive conclusion, but researchers said: “Our findings demonstrate that aHSCT [for relapsing-remitting MS] is feasible within regular healthcare and can be performed without compromising safety. Our study corroborates the results observed in the only randomised controlled trial conducted to date. We believe that aHSCT could benefit a greater number of MS patients and should be included as a standard of care for highly active MS.”

The MS Society estimates there are more than 130,000 people with the condition in the UK, with nearly 7,000 newly diagnosed each year. Symptoms include fatigue, muscle spasms and pain, as well as problems with vision, mobility, thinking, talking and swallowing.

Stem cell transplantation doesn’t work for everyone, but some people have experienced life-changing results. More evidence and further studies are needed to fully compare aHSCT with the most effective drug treatments currently available. One such study in the UK is the StarMS trial which is comparing aHSCT against Ocrelizumab, Alemtuzumab, Cladribine and Ofatumumab. 

The study aims to recruit 198 patients from 19 sites across the UK. Interested participants are advised to discuss the trial with their neurologist for a referral. 

Visit the StarMS trial website to find out more >

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