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MS and ALS Adult Stem Cell Progress Made in Israel

By injecting sufferers of neurological diseases with therapeutic quantities of cultured adult stem cells, scientists based at Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital have broken new ground in the field of stem cell research.

The researchers extracted stem cells from the hip bone marrow of 26 multiple sclerosis (MS) and amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients. The cells were re-injected into the patients via lumbar puncture following a two-month long process of in vitro cleansing, multiplication and chemical ‘tagging’. The researcher team was led by Professor Dimitrious Karussis and Prof. Shimon Slavin, the recently retired head of Hadassah’s bone marrow unit.

The particular type of stem cell used in the trial, marked a world first according to Karussis.

“The sole aim of this study was to explore the feasibility and the safety of this treatment, since it is applied for first time,” Karussis told ISRAEL21c.

The experiment was deemed a success with no adverse effects reported. Leading the way for further developments in forthcoming clinical trials, it was encouraging that patients also displayed anecdotal improvements in clinical symptoms.

“Most MS patients reported a stabilization of their condition and some an improvement in function, especially in sphincter control, muscle power in arms, tremor and stability in walking,” Karussis said. “ALS patients continued to show signs of deterioration – though at a lesser than previous degree.”

This is good news for both groups of patients. Resulting in impaired sensory, motor, balance and vision function, MS causes damage to the body’s central nervous system and affects over 2.5 million people worldwide. Causing the gradual and fatal loss of the patient’s capacity for movement, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, involves a similar degeneration of neuronal cells. ALS is more rare and progresses more rapidly.

Both conditions are ideal targets for stem cell treatment since they are both caused by the deterioration of a specific type of cell.

Suggesting that it might be possible to regenerate damaged nervous systems through cell re-growth, the Hadassah researchers found that transplanted adult stem cells began to differentiate into the kinds of cells which the diseases had destroyed. This was observed during extensive experimentation on animal models of MS and ALS.

Despite suffering from a similar motor neuron disorder, the treated lab mice retained 90 percent of their neurons after the equivalent of one or two years in the human progression of the diseases.

Marking the first time such adult stem cells have been injected into human patients, Karussis cited the most recent safety study. The study has paved the way for a larger efficacy trial to be held over the course of the next few years, despite remaining highly experimental since the small-scale study lacked a control group.

“We are encouraged as these are patients with advanced cases, many of them in wheelchairs,” Karussis told the Jerusalem Post.

Since most of the attention in recent years has been directed towards embryonic stem cell research, the current work utilizing adult stem cells is significant say scientists. There are advantages to using adult cells. The chances of immune rejection are significantly reduced since the patient can serve as his or her own donor. The ethical issues which surround embryonic stem cells is also avoided with this approach.

The researchers hope to launch a controlled clinical trial of the therapies after first enlarging the safety study to include more patients. Applications from potential trial patients are a welcome sight.

However, a license must first be obtained from the Ministry of Health, as well as funding to cover the expense of treating patients; a cost that can be up to $20,000 per patient. Despite these significant challenges, the team says it will all be worthwhile in the long run.

Stem cells, Karussis notes, “have already shown some promise in the treatment of joint and bone diseases, immune conditions and ischemia of the heart.” And he is optimistic, he says, that MS and ALS will join that auspicious list one day “not far into the future.”

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