Study Highlights Promise, Questions in Quest for Stem Cell-based MS Treatments


A case in India has highlighted the potential of stem cell therapies to treat MS, but the research remains in its infancy.

Bruce Bebo

A promising report from India appears to bolster the case that stem cell therapies might one day reverse the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS), but experts say there remain many more questions than answers when it comes to the potential treatment option.

Earlier this month, Indian research firm Advancells announced the results of a single-patient pilot study. The firm said they used an autologous adult stem cell therapy to successfully reverse MS symptoms in a patient from New Zealand.

The patient said he was able to regain the ability to climb stairs following the procedure, something he hadn’t done in five years. The company says they plan to track MRI scans and other data over the next several months in order to understand and document the full impact of the treatment on the disease.

Despite the apparent improvement in symptoms for the Advancells patient, researchers say there’s still much not know about stem cell-based therapies.

Bruce Bebo (pictured), PhD, the executive vice president of research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said it’s far too early to be able to draw any concrete conclusions about the promise of stem cell treatments for MS.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions that need to be answered in a rigorous methodical way in order for us to really understand the full potential and all the risks,” Bebo said.

Among the questions, according to Bebo: what are the best sources for cells, what’s the best delivery method for cells, how many cells need to be transplanted, and which candidates are most likely to benefit from such a treatment?

Advancells took cells from the patient’s bone marrow, isolated adult stem cells, and then injected them back into the body at strategic points to induce natural repairs mechanisms in the body to act.

In addition to the method used by Advancells, other researchers are working on a therapy known as autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, in which stem cells are withdrawn from a patient and then chemotherapy is used to weaken the patient’s immune system. Once the immune system is weakened, the stimulated stem cells are transplanted back into the patient in hopes of essentially “rebooting” the patient’s immune system so it will no longer attack the central nervous system.

One other method being studied involves growing or reprogramming cells to induce myelin repair. The National MS Society published a paper last month outlining the status of various stem cell research.

The bottom line is that, in the case of all of these methods, there have yet to be any rigorous large-scale human-based studies to demonstrate or refute the therapies.

Bebo also noted that while stem cells have been used successfully to treat macular degeneration, studies attempting to use cell-based therapies to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases have proven less successful.

“There’s promise but a lot of work that needs to be done in order to fully understand both the promise and pitfalls of this approach,” Bebo said.

For its part, Advancells says it has many months of data and research to review regarding the Gupta case. The company plans to do follow-up examinations at 3, 6, and 9 months to collect more data and compare results. They’ll also compare a 9-month MRI scan to a scan taken prior to the treatment.

“If the MRI shows visible changes corresponding to the changes in physical symptoms, another round of therapy will be planned to see if the progress can be extended further,” Advancells spokesperson Tanvi Garg said in a statement to MD Magazine.

Garg said it will be 9 to 12 months before a long-term study result will be available.

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