Health And Hope: Stem Cell Treatments For MS
Are Stem Cell Treatments What’s Next For MS?
For decades, scientists have been seeking better treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune condition that causes disabling and progressive neurological symptoms in over 400,000 Americans, primarily women. The last two decades, however, have been incomparable in establishing a new standard of care, pushing treatments beyond steroids to include beta interferon drugs, new pharmaceuticals, and even nanotechnology treatments that regulate the immune system.
Unfortunately, none of the new treatments widely available today offer MS patients hope of a cure, which is why many have turned their attention to stem cell treatments as their next best hope. Stem cell treatments aim to transform the immune system in affected individuals to prevent further attacks, as well as build a foundation for healing current neurological injuries.
Stem Cells For MS
In order to understand how stem cell therapies can improve symptoms or even cure MS, it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind the disease. At the most basic level, MS is caused by damage to the fatty insulation surrounding the nerves, a substance known as myelin. When the immune system attacks myelin, it leaves scars in the brain and spinal cord – providing the origin of the disease’s name, “multiple scars.” These scars disrupt the transmission of messages throughout the body.
Scientists are experimenting with several types of stem cell therapy for MS, with the approach depending on the types of stem cells employed. Those studying neural stem cells or NSCs focus on repairing myelin damage, while more ambitious approaches employing pluripotent or embryonic stem cells typically target the immune system itself.
So far, small studies using stem cells have shown significant potential. One 2016 test improved muscle tone, decreased weakness, and resulted in increased range of motion. Overall, these greatly improved quality of life and independence, a major concern among MS patients who frequently rely on extensive community supports, including home care, transportation, and assistive devices.
What Lies Ahead
Though stem cell technology is still in its infancy, MS patients and researchers are hopeful about what lies ahead. Hematopoietic stem cells (HSTs), derived from the blood, will likely play a key role in reconfiguring the immune system to fully cure MS. HSTs can grow into new, healthy immune cells, including white blood cells, that won’t attack the myelin sheath. They might also be used before or in conjunction with NSC treatments that foster myelin repairs.
In addition to determining which stem cells are involved in immune system function and nerve repair, researchers also hope to gather more information on when these treatments are most effective. MS is typically divided into two categories – relapsing-remitting and progressive, but most patients eventually advance to the progressive form. If researchers can develop stem cell interventions and apply them in patients who are still treatment naïve and early in their disease course, then they are more likely to cure rather than just control the disease.
MS doesn’t shorten lives, but it strikes young people and does significantly hinder quality of life. That means most people with it suffer serious disability by middle age and spend their later years seriously isolated and dependent on others. Stem cell research may still be fairly young, but it remains among the most promising technologies available for treating MS.
Considering the poor quality of available treatments, a breakthrough is sorely needed.