Cancer treatment for MS patients gives ‘remarkable’ results

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Source: BBC

UK doctors in Sheffield say patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) are showing “remarkable” improvements after receiving a treatment usually used for cancer.

About 20 patients have received bone marrow transplants using their own stem cells. Some patients who were paralysed have been able to walk again.

Prof Basil Sharrack, of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: “To have a treatment which can potentially reverse disability is really a major achievement.”

Around 100,000 people in the UK have MS, an incurable neurological condition. Most patients are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.

The disease causes the immune system to attack the lining of nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

Immune system ‘rebooted’

The treatment – known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) – aims to destroy the faulty immune system using chemotherapy.

It is then rebuilt with stem cells harvested from the patient’s own blood. These cells are at such an early stage they’ve not developed the flaws that trigger MS.

Prof John Snowden, consultant haematologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: “The immune system is being reset or rebooted back to a time point before it caused MS.”

About 20 MS patients have been treated in Sheffield in the past three years. Prof Snowden added: “It’s clear we have made a big impact on patients’ lives, which is gratifying.”


Multiple sclerosis

In MS the protective layer surrounding nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord – known as myelin – becomes damaged. The immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin, causing scarring or sclerosis.

The damaged myelin disrupts the nerve signals – rather like the short circuit caused by a frayed electrical cable. If the process of inflammation and scarring is not treated then eventually the condition can cause permanent neurodegeneration.


The BBC’s Panorama programme was given exclusive access to several patients who have undergone the stem cell transplant.

Steven Storey was diagnosed with MS in 2013 and, within a year, went from being an able-bodied athlete to needing a wheelchair and losing sensation in much of his body.

He said: “I went from running marathons to needing 24-hour acute care. At one point I couldn’t even hold a spoon and feed myself.”

Within a few days of the transplant he was able to move his toes, and after four months he could stand unaided.

Steven still needs a wheelchair but is astounded at his progress: “It’s been incredible. I was in a dire place, but now I can swim and cycle and I am determined to walk.”

Holly Drewry and Isla
Image captionHolly Drewry and Isla

Holly Drewry was just 21 when she was diagnosed with MS and her condition deteriorated after she gave birth to her daughter Isla.

She said “Within a couple of months I got worse and worse. I couldn’t dress or wash myself; I didn’t even have the strength to carry my daughter.”

Holly needed a wheelchair before her transplant, but after the treatment she walked out of hospital.

She said: “It’s been a miracle. I got my life and my independence back and the future is bright again in terms of being a mum and doing everything with Isla.”

Two years on she has suffered no relapses and there is no evidence of active disease on her scans.

Doctors describe her MS as dormant, but there is hope that the transplant might be a permanent fix.

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