Switch it off, count to ten, switch it on again. You’ve probably done this when your computer has been playing up. You’ve ‘re-booted’ the computer, made it start up again from scratch, back to where it was before it got itself muddled up.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition where your body’s own immune system gets very muddled up and it starts to attack parts of your own brain and nervous system. This in turn muddles up the messages to and from your brain and nerves, to and from other parts of your body. Sometimes the messages from your brain stop getting through completely. This can lead to all kinds of damage, and sometimes the effects can be permanent.
But new medical treatments mean your immune system can sometimes be re-booted almost like a computer. To do this, they use a treatment called stem cell therapy.
Stem cells are special cells found in your bone marrow and they can develop into different kinds of blood cells. Stem cells can be taken from your body or can be donated for you by a close relative. These can then be coaxed into turning into new, healthy white blood cells of the kind used by your body’s immune system.
First you have to stay in hospital for intensive drug treatment, like in cancer chemotherapy. This wipes out your immune system’s unhealthy white blood cells. Then those cells are replaced by transplanting in those new healthy white blood cells that have been created from your stem cells.
A couple of years ago in Canada, a small trial for this technique was carried out using stem cell therapy for patients with a particular kind of MS. This particular kind of MS is called recurring-remitting, which most people with MS have when they are first diagnosed. Recurring-remitting means that people have attacks with new symptoms, but these symptoms mostly fade away. Most of the patients in the Canadian experiment had these attacks stopped by the stem cell therapy.
The trial has more recently been repeated on a larger scale with people in different countries.
Obviously it’s risky to have your immune system switched off, so the new trial was only for people with recurring-remitting MS who were getting very severe attacks, as it was thought it would be worth taking the risk. They needed to be fairly healthy as well, apart from the MS.
Once again this kind of treatment has had amazing effects, working much better than any existing drug treatments. Most of the patients in the trial still feel the benefits three years later.
Stem cell therapy has been used for other conditions before, and now it looks very hopeful for treating this form of MS. Some doctors have even called this therapy miraculous.