There is a great deal of scientific and media interest in stem cells as a possible treatment for MS. Some scientific reports do reveal encouraging clinical findings, but a lot of work still needs to be done to prove their effectiveness and safety for people with MS.
MS Australia does not oppose stem cell treatment. Instead we want people to know all the facts, to fully understand the potential risks and side effects, as well as the potential benefits, and to most importantly discuss this with their neurologist to ultimately decide whether they are a suitable candidate for such treatments, the majority of which are still considered experimental.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are cells which are able to differentiate into other types of cells and are capable of ‘self-renewal’ or multiplying to produce greater numbers. The aim of some stem cell research is to use or manipulate those stem cells to help regenerate lost tissue.
For more information on types of stem cells including haematopoietic stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells, visit MS Research Australia: https://msra.org.au/ahsct/ahsct-faqs/ and scroll down to: What are stem cells?
What is stem-cell treatment?
Stem cell therapy is any treatment that uses or targets stem cells. This is usually to help replace or repair damaged cells or tissues, but can also be used to prevent damage from happening in the first place. Stem cell therapy might either involve transplanting stem cells or giving drugs that target stem cells already in the body.
The majority of stem cell research in MS is still in the relatively early stages and there is not as yet a proven stem cell treatment that has been shown to repair damaged myelin or nerves in MS. Despite this there are clinics within Australia and around the world that offer stem cell treatments for MS and other conditions (for example using stem cells derived from fat tissue retrieved by liposuction). It is important to note that the safety and efficacy of these treatments is currently unknown and unproven. The National Health and Medical Research Council has produced a useful resource for people who might be considering a stem cell treatment outside of an approved clinical trial – you can download the resource here https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/resources/stem-cell-treatments-frequently-asked-questions
Autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (AHSCT) treatment
The only stem cell-based treatment that is currently in use for MS, and supported by clinical research findings, is an immune-suppressing chemotherapy treatment, called autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (AHSCT). This chemotherapy treatment destroys the patients’ immune system and then uses blood and immune stem cells from the bone marrow (haematopoeitic stem cells) to help restore, or reset, the immune system following the chemotherapy. This is an intensive and relatively high risk form of treatment and is generally only considered by Australian hospitals as being suitable for people with aggressive forms of MS who have not responded to other available MS therapies.
Our colleagues at MS Research Australia have provided a comprehensive resource on their website with further details on AHSCT treatment, what research has told us about the safety and efficacy of this treatment for MS and what is happening in Australia with AHSCT. Please visit www.msra.org.au/AHSCT for more information.
Mesenchymal stem cells
Mesenchymal stem cell therapy is a different treatment to AHSCT. As explained above, AHSCT is designed to restore the immune system through the re-infusion of the patient’s own blood and immune stem cells following chemotherapy treatment, which completely or substantially depletes the immune system.
Mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy does not involve chemotherapy and uses a different type of stem cell which can be isolated from different tissues, including bone marrow and fat.
In laboratory studies, mesenchymal stem cells have shown the potential to develop into a range of other cell types including muscle, connective tissue and nerve cells; they also secrete growth and other factors that may influence the immune system. The evidence to date from animal studies and very early stage human trials suggests that the therapeutic potential of MSCs may come from the chemicals they secrete that appear to calm the immune system and contribute to an environment that is more supportive for self-repair of the central nervous system.
Some media reports have highlighted research underway regarding clinical trials of an exploratory stem cell trial in Israel involving the use of mesenchymal stem cells.
For further information on these developments and other international research going on into MSC treatment for MS, please visit a news article on the MS Research Australia web-site: https://msra.org.au/news/mesenchymal-stem-cell-therapy-spotlight/
[Source: MS Research Australia]
For more information on AHSCT treatment and the latest research position please visit MS Research Australia: http://www.msra.org.au/autologous-haematopoietic-stem-cell-transplant-ahsct-ms
For more information on the National Health and Medical Research Council position on stem cell treatments and links to their resources visit http://www.msra.org.au/nhmrc-publishes-stem-cell-treatments-resource
For more information on clinical trials in Australia and New Zealand, please visit the Australia New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry listing here:
For an up to date listing of clinical trials currently recruiting for MS visit https://mstrials.org.au/
For the views of the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation on stem cells: https://www.msif.org/research/stem-cells-regeneration-and-repair-in-ms/
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) resource 'A closer look at stem cell treatments' is a good starting point for more information regarding the safety of stem cell treatments and the latest international research position.
There is also comprehensive information available from Stem Cells Australia: http://www.stemcellsaustralia.edu.au/About-Stem-Cells