BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in:  Health
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Background Briefings 
Medical notes 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK
Stem cells could help MS patients
Multiple sclerosis affects thousands of people in the UK
Patients with severe cases of multiple sclerosis could be helped by stem cell transplants, research suggests.

A small study in the US showed the treatment appeared to stabilise MS patients, whose condition had previously been deteriorating.

Stem cells are the body's "master cells" and can develop into a wide variety of different cell types.

About 85,000 people in the UK have MS, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system.


The researchers' findings were presented to the American Academy of Neurology's 54th Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

The treatment developed by doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle involves removing stem cells from the patients' blood, killing the cells that are working against the body's immune system and then returning the healthy cells back to the body.

These patients had all been rapidly deteriorating over the past year, so to get them to a point where they are stabilised is great progress

Dr George Kraft, University of Washington Medical Center
In the study, 26 people with severe MS underwent the treatment.

They had all unsuccessfully tried conventional therapies and either seen no improvement, or suffered bad side effects.

In the year before the study was carried out, all had deteriorated by one or more points on a scale that measures MS disability.

Magnetic device

The key breakthrough as the way they separate the stem cells from the patient's blood.

Stem cells are hard to track down and they wanted to isolate them from the other cells, so they generated anti-bodies to the stem cells.

They then attached tiny magnetic beads and mix this in with the blood.

Then a magnetic device was used to separate out the stem cells they needed, leaving the rest behind.

The patients were monitored for an average of 14 months following the treatment.

After the stem cell transplant, 20 patients were stable, with no change in their amount of disability.

Six showed a small amount of improvement in some aspects of their condition - around half a point on the MS scale.


But some patients suffered complications after the procedure.

One, who received a particular form of an immunosuppressive drug, developed viruses which can affect transplant patients and died several weeks later.

Another patient developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, and pneumonia 17 months after the transplant.

Another patient suffered a fever for which doctors could not pinpoint the cause soon after the transplant - and his MS worsened slightly as a result.

'Good news'

However, one year after the transplant, only three patients had new brain lesions, a sign of MS, and just two had needed to take drugs to relieve their MS.

Further research is planned, aimed at confirming the treatment's effectiveness and monitor its long-term effects.

Dr George Kraft who led the research, said: "This is good news.

"These patients had all been rapidly deteriorating over the past year, so to get them to a point where they are stabilised is great progress.

"The hope is that these stem cells will eventually reconstitute into healthy immune system cells and the disease process can be stopped."


Christine Jones, chief executive of the MS Trust welcomed the research.

She said: "For people with very aggressive disease there are currently few effective therapies available we therefore welcome the prospect of any new treatment which may slow the progression of disability and reduce the amount of scarring or lesions in the brain.

"The results presented in Denver do seem to offer real hope on the horizon and we look forward to further larger scale trials."

A spokesman for the MS Society said: "These early results of a potential MS treatment are encouraging, particularly as the study involved people with very severe MS.

"However, as Dr Kraft has stressed, the treatment is still at an experimental stage and further trials are needed to confirm its long-term effectiveness and safety.

"We shall be following developments closely."

See also:

13 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Stem cell research doubts
12 Dec 01 | Health
Stem cell transplant boost
08 Sep 01 | Health
Banking on a healthy future
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Health stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Health stories