Wednesday, February 3, 2016

An Effective Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease in which the patient's immune cells (specifically, white blood cells) begin attacking the patient's nerve cells in much the same way that they attack foreign pathogens. No one knows quite why they do that, but once they do, their immune memory becomes fixed on continuing the attack. The disease is often intermittent (the symptoms may come and go) and progressive, leading to more permanent symptoms. Immunosuppressive drugs to treat the disease can cost upwards of $60,000 per year.

Now there may be a way to halt the progression of the disease. The basic idea is to reboot the patient's immune system - to wipe out the immune system's memory and start again. In practice here is how it might be done: First, hemopoietic stem cells are harvested from the patient's bone marrow. As you may recall, hemopoietic stem cells have the capacity to develop into all of the various kinds of blood cells. Next, the patient is treated with low-dose chemotherapy to kill the white blood cells that are attacking his/her nerve cells. Finally, the patient's own stem cells are returned to the patient, where they develop into new white blood cells without the previous white cells' memory.

Preliminary data from clinical trials in three countries (Brazil, Sweden, and Britain) have been very encouraging; most patients feel subjectively as if they have been cured. Only about 10% of the patients suffer a relapse within five years of treatment.

It's an awesome advance if it can be proven to work. Even more exciting is that the same type of therapy (rebooting the immune system) might also work against other autoimmune disorders.

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