“If I don’t do this, and it proves to work, I’d be kicking myself if my disease progressed. It felt like I really didn’t have a choice.” – Jennifer Molson, former MS patient.
If you know what MS is, the implication of the above quote has already hit you. If not, here’s a brief background on MS. MS stands for Multiple Sclerosis. It is a debilitating disorder that turns the patient’s immune system on itself and instead of protecting from foreign invaders it attacks the myelin – the protective covering around the nerve fibres of spinal cord and brain.
As this damage progresses, the communication between brain and body is interrupted which leads to severe disability over a period of time. There has been no definite cure for this disease so far but speculations and medications on delaying its progress. So, when Jennifer Molson was diagnosed with MS and invited to be a part of an experimental study that involved a combination of chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, all she expected was ‘ the disease would stabilize’. And it turned outs that it cured her completely and today 15 years later she is kayaking and skiing with no sign of disability whatsoever.
So how did this miracle happen?
Once Jennifer was accepted into the study, the doctors began their proposed new treatment by putting her through a short course of chemotherapy. This was to stimulate the production of haematopoietic stem cells and regenerate her immune system. Once this was done, she was hooked to a machine to collect the stem cells which were then cleansed, wiped off of all memory and transplanted back into her system through blood transfusion.
Although this sounds relatively simple, it happened to be the most painful part of the process as this involved destroying her diseased immune system and replacing it with a brand new one which came with its own share of nausea, feeding tubes and long, gruelling hours at the clinic. Not to mention the long and indefinite recuperation period where her immune system had to learn how to defend itself from disease-causing viruses and bacteria from the scratch. But, the chance she took of enrolling herself for the study was worth it after all.
“This is a fascinating development … [and] a good example of the difference between the real clinical research and what is being marketed by the clinics providing unproven therapies — you can’t simply ‘inject’ stem cells and expect significant results,” says Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor.
However, the two major caveats in the study are it was small and lacked a control/comparison study. Also, only about 5 percent of MS patients would be eligible for this treatment, points out Harry Atkins, the researcher who led the study, the minority who have an aggressive form of MS that’s not responding to any treatment.