A pioneering new stem cell treatment is reversing and then halting the potentially crippling effects of multiple sclerosis.Doctors believe MS is caused by a person's own immune system turning on the person and attacking the brain and spinal cord, leading to loss of function and even death.
Patients embarking on a ground-breaking trial of the new treatment have found they can walk again and that the disease even appears to be stopped in its tracks.
The treatment is being carried out at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield and Kings College Hospital, London and involves use a high dose of chemotherapy to knock out the immune system before rebuilding it with stem cells taken from the patient’s own blood.
Holly Drewry, 25, from Sheffield, was wheelchair bound after the birth of her daughter Isla, now two. But Miss Drewry claims the new treatment has transformed her life.
She told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “I couldn’t walk steadily. I couldn’t trust myself holding her (Isla) in case I fell. Being a new mum I wanted to do it all properly but my MS was stopping me from doing it.
“It is scary because you think, when is it going to end?”
Miss Drewry had the treatment in Sheffield. She said: “I started seeing changes within days of the stem cells being put in.
“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.”
Her treatment has now been reviewed and her condition found to have been dramatically halted. She will need to be monitored for years but the hope is that her transplant will be a permanent fix.
For other patients, the results have been equally dramatic. Steven Storey was a marathon runner and triathlete before he was struck down with the disease and left completely paralysed: “I couldn’t flicker a muscle,” he said. But within nine days of the treatment he could move his toe and after 10 months managed a mile-long swim in the Lake District. He has also managed to ride a bike and walk again.
“It was great. I felt I was back,” he said.
The procedure involves harvesting and storing the patient's stem cells and then killing the immune system with drugs usually used in cancer treatment. Once the immune system is destroyed the stem cells are reinserted into the patient where they form red and white blood cells and within a month the immune system is reestablished, evidently in a more benign form.
Professor Basil Sharrack, a consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous.There are more details in the article. It didn't say when the treatment will be made more widely available, but if it's shown to work consistently I'm sure there'll be hundreds of thousands of MS sufferers in the US who will be eager to try it out.
"This is not a word I would use lightly, but we have seen profound neurological improvements."