- Researchers in Canada have published results of a long-term trial of an individuals’ own (autologous) hematopoietic (blood cell-producing) stem cell transplantation. The study involved 24 people with aggressive relapsing-remitting MS whose disease was not controlled with available therapies.
- Three years after the procedure, 70% remained free of disease activity, with no relapses, no new MRI-detected inflammatory brain lesions, and no signs of progression.
- None of the surviving participants, who were followed for 4 to 13 years after the procedure, experienced clinical relapses or required MS disease-modifying therapies to control their disease, and 40% experienced reductions in disability.
- One of the participants died and another required intensive hospital care for liver complications. All participants developed fevers, which were frequently associated with infections, and other toxicities.
- Additional research is focusing on figuring out who might benefit from this procedure and how to reduce its risks.
“These results suggest that aggressive MS may be stopped with an effective but risky procedure, for a subset of people,” said Dr. Bruce Bebo, Executive Vice President, Research, at the National MS Society. “Additional research by investigators around the world is focusing on figuring out who might benefit from this procedure and how to reduce its risks, which can include death.”
Background: An experimental procedure that has been explored for several years in MS is called “autologous hematopoietic (blood cell-producing) stem cell transplantation” – or HSCT. This procedure has been used in attempts to “reboot” the immune system, which launches attacks on the brain and spinal cord in people with MS.
In HSCT, the stem cells (derived from a person’s own bone marrow or blood) are stored, and the rest of the individual’s immune cells are depleted by chemotherapy. Then the stored stem cells are reintroduced by infusion into the vein. The new stem cells migrate to the bone marrow and over time produce new blood cells, including immune cells. The goal of this currently experimental procedure is to establish a new immune system that no longer recognizes myelin and other nervous system tissue as dangerous. In theory, this should stop the attacks that lead to tissue damage and disability.
There are a number of laboratories around the world testing variations of HSCT for the treatment of autoimmune diseases, including MS. Preliminary findings suggest this is a promising, but potentially risky strategy for the treatment of MS.
The Study: Drs. Harold Atkins, Mark Freedman and team at the Ottawa Hospital, University of Ottawa and other institutions in Canada conducted a Phase 2 trial of HSCT that involved 24 people with aggressive relapsing-remitting MS whose disease was not controlled with available therapies. No control group was used which would have enabled comparison against the results found in the treatment group. The procedure used by this group included complete destruction of bone marrow cells and an additional step that enriched the transplanted cells for stem cells.
Results – Safety: One of the participants died of transplantation-related complications that caused liver failure and another required intensive hospital care for liver complications. The treatment regimen was modified over the course of the study to reduce toxicity, but all participants still developed fevers, which were frequently associated with infections.
Results – Effectiveness: Three years after the procedure, 70% of the participants remained free of disease activity, meaning they had no relapses, no new MRI-detected inflammatory brain lesions, and no signs of progression. The remaining 30% experienced progression of disability. In addition, for the entire follow-up period ranging from 4 to 13 years after the procedure, of the 23 survivors:
- None experienced clinical relapse, had new active inflammatory MRI brain lesions, or required MS disease-modifying therapies to control their disease.
- The average rate of brain atrophy (shrinkage), a measure that has been linked to MS progression, returned to levels associated with normal aging.
- 40 percent experienced some lasting reversal of disability such as vision loss, muscle weakness and balance problems.
- Some were able to return to work or school.
The results were published online on June 9, 2016 in The Lancet. Major funding for the study came from the MS Society of Canada and its affiliated Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation.
Next Steps: Rigorous clinical trials of stem cell therapies are needed to determine their safety and effectiveness in people with MS. Trials of this and other stem cell therapy approaches are taking place in Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere. To help explore the potential of stem cell therapy, in November 2015, the International Conference on Cell-Based Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis was convened in Lisbon, Portugal under the auspices of the International Advisory Committee on Clinical Trials in MS (a group jointly sponsored by the National MS Society and the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis). Seventy leading researchers and clinicians conferred on clinical trials needed to provide answers about which types of cells, which route of delivery, and which types and stages of disease, would be the most promising approach for treating MS. Read more about this meeting
Read more about stem cells and MS