The wonders of stem cell therapy are being realized in a breakthrough medical trial that has reversed and halted the effects of multiple sclerosis (MS). This disease can suddenly attack healthy young people, rendering them disabled or completely paralyzed, sometimes even causing death.
Researchers at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, U.K. and Kings College Hospital are carrying out the treatment.
Patients involved in the trial have gained a complete recovery from MS, even a triathlete who had become completely paralyzed. Within nine days of the treatment, Steven Storey was moving his toe; after ten months he was walking, riding a bicycle, and swam a mile.
“It was great. I felt I was back,” said Storey.
For Holly Drewry, 25, recovering from MS gave her the joyous ability to walk and carry her young child. She had become wheelchair-bound after the birth of her daughter Isla, now two.
“I started seeing changes within days of the stem cells being put in,” said Drewry. “I walked out of the hospital. I walked into my house and hugged Isla. I cried and cried. It was a bit overwhelming. It was a miracle.”
In both patients, there is now no evidence of active disease. The miraculous—and hopefully permanent—treatment is the result of injecting stem cells into the body after its immune system is knocked out by a high dose of chemotherapy.
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As the immune system “reboots,” stem cells previously harvested from the patient’s body are infused back into the body, growing new red and white blood cells in a matter of weeks. Patients begin to notice recovery in about a month, after the immune system has completely restored itself.
“Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous,” said Professor Basil Sharrack, a consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. "This is not a word I would use lightly, but we have seen profound neurological improvements."
No one knows what causes MS, which results in the brain and spinal cord being attacked. Some doctors believe that the immune system is the culprit.
The result of this trial—which reversed the effects of the most common chronic neurological disease—is a significant milestone for stem cell therapy, which is only beginning to provide the miracles it promises.
Stem cells have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body. When stem cells divide, each new cell can either remain a stem cell or become more specialized, such as a muscle cell or brain cell. The promise of stem cells lies in their possibility to replace faulty cells associated with disease, essentially curing debilitating conditions like certain types of blindness.
The MS treatment described above used adult stem cells harvested from the patient’s body. These are “multipotent” stem cells, which have a limited range in the type of cells they can become.
“Pluripotent” and “totipotent” stem cells can give rise to all of the cell types that make up the body, and could therefore treat the widest range of diseases. These are a source of controversy in some religious circles, as they are harvested from 3- to 5-day old embryos which are 14 micrometers in size. It is important to note:
"Most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors."