Stem cells are the cornerstone treatment in the rapidly developing medical specialty known as regenerative medicine. While stem cell treatments have been used for decades to treat blood-based diseases including anaemias, leukemias and lymphomas, newer research is showing the potential for stem cells to repair the damage of chronic, degenerative diseases, including Multiple sclerosis (MS).
What is Multiple Sclerosis?
MS is a chronic, debilitating disease driven by the gradual deterioration of myelin surrounding our nerves. Myelin is a complex substance made by the body to both protect our nerves and facilitate nerve impulse transmissions. Nerve impulses are the entire basis on which our body performs all functions, from walking and breathing, to vision and hearing. This progressive demyelination of nerves is mediated by the immune system, meaning the patients’ immune system is mistakenly attacking (thus damaging) the nervous system. This damage is irreversible, making MS a life limiting and life threatening disease.
Current Treatments for MS
Currently, there is no cure available for MS. Treatment may involve everything from no treatment at all, to harsh medication protocols involving drugs such as corticosteroids, beta interferons and chemotherapy-like drugs. Many have severe side effects and weaken the immune system. All current medications are designed to reduce the symptoms of MS or to manage a relapse of the condition.
Stem Cell Treatments for MS
Haematopoetic Stem Cells (HSC’s) and Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC’s) are examples of stem cells. They are known to have extensive potential to replicate and differentiate into many various cell types. They are increasingly being viewed as candidates for new MS treatments, as they may replace or repair neural tissue lost to the disease.
HSC’s and MSC’s can be isolated from both adult tissue and the umbilical cord blood of a newborn baby. However, some research suggest that stem cells preserved at birth show far less potential for host rejection in comparission to the use of adult stem cells (even when the adult stem cells come from the patient themselves).
HSC’s produce all the stem cells found in blood (which includes red blood cells and white blood cells). MSC’s can differentiate into neural, fat and bone tissue cells. Both HSC’s and MSC’s are involved in the regeneration of tissue at the site of tissue injury. They show great promise in treating many of the modern degenerative diseases, because of their unique ability to initiate tissue repair.
Many of the clinical trials involving MSC or HSC replacement for MS are still underway. However, some are demonstrating “a long term suppression of all inflammatory activity in people with MS," says Dr. Harold Atkins at The Ottawa Hospital. Researchers also caution that the therapy is aggressive and not without risk, as the patients damaged immune cells must first be eliminated with high doses of chemotherapy before the stem cells are re-introduced.
Stem cell treatments for MS are not yet fully accepted or funded in the medical profession. Stem cell medicine is a relatively young and novel area of medicine, thus mainstream clinics and hospitals prefer to see the success of many clinical trials before instating any treatment. However, the great success of stem cell therapies has lead to a worldwide explosion in clinical trials involving stem cells, many looking specifically at MS. Many of these trials are examining MS patients with "relapsing-remitting MS" (involving episodes of MS that flare up) or secondary progressive MS (where patients report a decline over time).
Stem cell preservation cost in the USA is becoming more affordable, particularly at birth. The painless collection of umbilical cord blood immediately after a baby is born provides a rich source of stem cells that can be preserved for your baby, for life, should they ever require their powerful therapeutic benefits.
It could be considered a wise investment in the future health of your children, particularly as strong evidence supporting the clinical application of stem cells therapies for chronic diseases continues to increase with each passing year.