Stem cells injected into the brains of multiple sclerosis patients appear to protect them against further damage from the degenerative disease, a new study shows.
MS occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and damages the protective sheath around nerve fibers, called myelin. This disrupts messages sent around the brain and spinal cord.
MS patients who received a fetal stem cell injection into their brains did not show any increase in disability or worsening of symptoms during a yearlong follow-up period, researchers reported in Tuesday's issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.
"We desperately need to develop new treatments for secondary progressive MS, and I am cautiously very excited about our findings, which are a step towards developing a cell therapy for treating MS," said co-lead researcher Stephano Pluchino, a professor of regenerative neuroimmunology at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
More than 2 million people live with MS worldwide, researchers said in background notes. Two-thirds wind up progressing into a debilitating secondary phase of the disease, where their disability grows steadily worse.
But experts said the new study offers hope.
"This was a very small, early-stage study and we need further clinical trials to find out if this treatment has a beneficial effect on the condition. But this is an encouraging step towards a new way of treating some people with MS," said Caitlin Astbury, research communications manager at the MS Society.
The new study involved 15 highly disabled patients with secondary MS, most of them wheelchair-bound. The patients were recruited from two hospitals in Italy.
Previous mouse studies from the Cambridge team had shown that brain stem cells transplanted into the central nervous system can help reduce damage and potentially might repair damage done by MS.
Researchers injected the patients with brain stem cells taken from a single miscarried fetal donor. The Italian researchers involved in the study have shown the possibility of producing a virtually limitless supply of these stem cells from a single donor.
During the 12-month follow-up period, none of the patients reported symptoms that would suggest a relapse. In addition, none suffered no significant worsening of their cognitive function.
The researchers argue this points to a substantial stabilization of the patients' disease, although their high levels of disability make it difficult to confirm.
"We recognize that our study has limitations -- it was only a small study and there may have been confounding effects from the immunosuppressant drugs, for example -- but the fact that our treatment was safe and that its effects lasted over the 12 months of the trial means that we can proceed to the next stage of clinical trials," Pluchino said.
Tests showed that higher doses of stem cells produced higher levels of fatty acids in blood and cerebrospinal fluid, which might be one potential explanation of the protective effects seen in this study, the researchers said.
The Cleveland Clinic has more about stem cell therapy in MS.
Copyright © 2023 HealthDay. All rights reserved.