Scientist looking through a microscope at stem cells, which are a spark of hope in a new MS study

Stem cell treatment sparks hope for MS in new study

A pioneering research effort led by an international team has investigated the use of stem cell therapy for progressive multiple sclerosis (MS).

In this groundbreaking study, neural stem cells were injected into the brains of patients, revealing promising results in terms of safety and potential effectiveness in halting additional brain damage.

In multiple sclerosis (MS), the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and damages myelin, the protective covering around nerve fibers, leading to disruptions in the transmission of messages within the brain and spinal cord.

Macrophages, immune cells known as “big eaters,” play a key role in this process. A specific type of macrophage called microglial cells, distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord, contributes to chronic inflammation and nerve cell damage in progressive forms of MS.

Recent breakthroughs have sparked hopes that stem cell therapies could mitigate this damage. These therapies involve transplanting stem cells, the body’s versatile “master cells,” capable of developing into various cell types.

Previous research by the Cambridge team demonstrated in mice that reprogrammed skin cells into brain stem cells, when transplanted into the central nervous system, reduced inflammation and showed potential for repairing MS-related damage.

In a groundbreaking early-stage clinical trial published in Cell Stem Cell, scientists from the University of Cambridge, Milan Bicocca, Hospitals Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza and S. Maria Terni (IT), Ente Ospedaliero Cantonale (Lugano, Switzerland), and the University of Colorado (USA) injected neural stem cells directly into the brains of 15 patients with secondary MS recruited from Italian hospitals.

Derived from brain tissue of a single miscarried foetal donor, these stem cells have the potential for a nearly limitless supply, addressing practical concerns associated with using foetal tissue.

Over 12 months, the researchers observed no treatment-related deaths or serious adverse events. Although temporary or reversible side effects occurred, none of the patients experienced increased disability or worsening symptoms. No relapses or significant cognitive function decline were reported.

While the researchers acknowledged the challenge of confirming disease stability due to the high initial disability levels, they noted that patients receiving higher doses of stem cells showed a smaller reduction in brain volume associated with disease progression, suggesting a potential dampening effect on inflammation.

Examining neuroprotective effects, the team investigated changes in brain metabolism after stem cell treatment. Analysis of fluid around the brain and blood revealed signs linked to fatty acid processing, indicating treatment efficacy and disease development. Higher stem cell doses correlated with increased fatty acid levels persisting over the 12-month period.