Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system attacks your central nervous system and damages your nerve fibers. That makes it hard for your brain to “talk" with the rest of your body and causes symptoms like weakness, tingling or numbness in your limbs, trouble speaking, chronic pain, depression, and vision loss.
Several medications are used to treat MS. They can cause serious side effects, and over time, they can stop working for some people. But a new treatment involving stem cells may work for people who have relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) and haven’t been helped by other medicines.
With RRMS, you’ll have no symptoms or very mild ones for a period of time. Then you’ll have severe symptoms, which is called a relapse, for a short while. RRMS eventually can turn into another form of the disease, where your symptoms don’t ever go away.
What Is Stem Cell Therapy for MS?
Stem cells can turn into different kinds of cells in your body. Hematopoietic stem cells make blood cells. Some doctors use a type of stem cell treatment called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) to treat RRMS. But more research is needed to know how well HSCT works against it.
With HSCT, doctors give you medication to help you make more bone marrow stem cells. Then they take some blood and save the stem cells from it to use later. You’ll next get high doses of chemotherapy and other strong medications to severely slow down your immune system. This is done in a hospital, and you may need to stay there up to 11 days.
Your doctor puts the stem cells into your bloodstream so they can become new white blood cells and help your body build a new, healthy immune system. You’ll also get medicines like antibiotics to help fight off infections and other illnesses until your immune system can do its job again.
Treatment usually takes several weeks. Recovery may take several months. Every person is different, but when treatment is successful, your immune system should be back to full strength in 3 to 6 months.
Is Stem Cell Therapy Effective?
HSCT doesn’t work for everyone with MS. Most people who get it are taking part in research studies called clinical trials that test if a treatment or medication is safe and effective.
One trial of 24 people with RRMS found that 69% who had stem cell therapy didn’t have a relapse in MS symptoms or new brain lesions, which are caused by MS, 5 years after treatment.
Scientists are also looking for other ways to use stem cells to treat the disease.
Is It Safe?
Stem cell therapy has serious risks. During HSCT, your immune system isn’t at full strength. That raises your chances of getting an infection.
A weak immune system also ups your odds of kidney, lung, or gastrointestinal (gut) problems as well as sepsis, a serious and potentially deadly reaction to an infection. That’s why some experts say more research needs to be done before stem cell therapy becomes a standard treatment for MS.
Is Stem Cell Therapy Approved by the FDA for MS?
No. It’s still considered experimental. Some clinics in other countries use HSCT for MS. But only a few medical centers in the U.S. offer it, and only for people who meet certain requirements.
For example, you might be a candidate if you have highly inflammatory RRMS. That means you’ve had serious MS relapses and your symptoms have gotten worse quickly because other treatments haven’t helped. You probably will need to have had MS for 10 years or less and be able to walk.
Ask your doctor about clinical trials that are testing HSCT. These trials are a way for people to try new medicines that aren’t available to everyone. They can tell you if one of them might be a good fit for you.