Stem cell treatment could be more effective than drug therapy in treating people with severe cases of multiple sclerosis (MS).
A new study published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology compares the effectiveness of the two treatments in 21 people whose disability due to MS had increased during the previous year even though they were taking conventional medications (also known as first-line treatments).
The participants had an average age of 36 and were at an average disability level where a cane or crutch was needed to walk.
All of the patients in the phase II study were given medications to suppress immune system activity. MS drug mitoxantrone, which reduces immune system activity, was then administered to 12 of the participants.
The remaining members of the study had stem cells harvested from their bone marrow. After the immune system was suppressed, these cells were reintroduced through a vein.
Over time, the cells migrate to the bone marrow, where they produce new cells that become immune cells. The participants were followed for four years.
"This process appears to reset the immune system," said study author Dr Giovanni Mancardi of the University of Genova in Italy. "With these results, we can speculate that stem cell treatment may profoundly affect the course of the disease."
Treatment with stem cells was found to reduce disease activity significantly more than the mitoxantrone treatment.
Patients who received this form of therapy were found to have 80 per cent fewer new areas of brain damage called T2 lesions than those who received mitoxantrone.
They had an average of 2.5 new T2 lesions, while those receiving mitoxantrone had an average of eight.
None of the people who received the stem cell treatment developed new gadolinium-enhancing lesions, while 56 percent of those taking mitoxantrone had at least one new lesion.
The serious side-effects that were developed during the study were expected and resolved without patients suffering permanent consequences.
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