There are about 2.5 million people who suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS) in the world. There are around 400,000 cases in the United States. Canada has one of the higher rates of the disease that can affect a person’s brain, spinal chord and eyes. The symptoms can be mild with little need for medical solutions, to very severe with the need for 24-hour care. Two doctors, Mark Freedman and Harry Atkins from Ottawa Hospital in Canada, have pioneered a new treatment for the disease with pretty extraordinary results.
The treatment, pioneered by Freedman and Dr. Harry Atkins of The Ottawa Hospital and University of Ottawa, involves wiping out a patient’s immune systems and then generating a new one using the patient’s own blood stem cells.
The complex procedure was performed on 24 patients who were followed for up to 13 years to confirm the results. One participant died of liver failure due to the treatment (which has since been modified to make it less toxic to the liver) and another required intensive care for liver complications.
But of those who successfully received the treatment, the study found that not a single participant experienced a clinical relapse, there were no new active inflammatory brain lesions that could be detected, not a single participant required drugs to control the disease and, crucially, 70 per cent of participants experienced a complete stop in disease progression.
This treatment is for early and aggressively progressing MS and not for patients who have accumulated disabilities over the course of a long time with the disease. However, the importance of these results cannot be understated. There is reason to believe that this treatment, along with modifications to lessen the more toxic elements, can completely reverse the course of a young person’s life.
Jennifer Molson was 21 in 2002 when she received a stem cell transplant as part of the trial at The Ottawa Hospital. She had been diagnosed with MS six years earlier and the disease had progressed rapidly.
By the time she received the transplant, the formerly active young woman was receiving 24-hour care at The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre. She couldn’t feed herself, blow dry her hair, shower or dress without help.
Today, Molson is symptom free, relapse free, skiing, driving, working and living life as if she had never had MS.
At the time, the mortality rate of the treatment was about one in 10. Those odds have been changed favorably since 2002 as medicine and technology has advanced. The study was funded with $6.7 million from the MS Society in Canada. Other hospitals are also working on similar “re-booting” techniques to treat the disease. In England, a young mother, wheelchair bound by MS shortly after the birth of her daughter, went in for the treatment.
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.
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.”