A $2.4-million grant was awarded to two Ottawa researchers for their work in fighting the chronic and often disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord that is multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Harry Atkins and Dr. Mark Freedman will continue a closely watched clinical trial involving an experimental bone marrow stem cell transplant therapy. Their team was awarded the money by The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.
Improvements in the ability to walk and see have been among the most dramatic observations of their MS research along with data on MS symptoms slowing down.
“The idea behind this clinical trial is to replace the diseased immune system with a new one derived from the patient’s own bone marrow stem cells,” said Atkins, a scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, and a bone marrow transplant specialist at the Ottawa Hospital.
“First, we purify and freeze the patient’s stem cells, then we use strong chemotherapy to destroy their existing immune system,” he said. “We then transplant the purified stem cells back into the patient.”
“It takes time, but eventually these stem cells will form a completely new immune system — one that does not attack the brain and spinal cord — we hope.”
Researchers say that applying the procedure to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS is novel, but a similar procedure has been used to treat certain types of blood cancer for more than 25 years.
“We hoped that this therapy would halt or slow the progression of MS, and in the patients examined so far, it seems to have worked,” Freedman said. “In addition, some patients have experienced substantial improvements in their ability to see and walk.”
“This was unexpected, and it suggests the exciting possibility that the therapy may be contributing to some sort of repair or regeneration. With this funding, we can investigate this further.”
The knowledge gained could lead to significant improvements in the treatment of MS and other autoimmune diseases, even though the therapy is highly experimental researchers said.
Making it the most common neurological disease of young adults in Canada, between 55,000 and 75,000 Canadians have multiple sclerosis. People are typically diagnosed with MS between the ages of 15-40.
Stiffness of muscles, extreme fatigue, speech problems, loss of balance, double or blurred vision, bladder and bowel problems, or even partial or complete paralysis can be among the unpredictable and varying symptoms that a person with MS can experience.