A New Therapeutic Approach to MS

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

April 27, 2018

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) remains a mysterious disease. We don’t know what causes it, and our current treatments are helpful, but not curative. Thus, a new approach involving stem cells that can evolve into normal immune cells is welcome. Before going further, I must emphasize I am talking about a soon-to-be-published study. I have not seen the raw data and am basing my remarks on the report from a recent meeting “Stem cell treatment could be agame-changer for people with MS” in Time (page 1).

In MS, a person’s own immune cells attack myelin, the protective covering of nerve processes in the brain and spinal cord. As these nerve processes lose their protective coverings, they no longer transmit signals normally. Many current therapies are aimed at knocking out these misdirected immune cells. In the study reported by Alice Park, investigators went a step further. They not only knocked out the abnormal immune cells, they induced a subject’s bone marrow to produce normal stem cells that evolved into normal immune cells. The reported study involved over 100 subjects with MS, who were then divided into two groups:  those who received conventional therapy and those who not only had their immune cells repressed, but also had normal stem cells induced from bone marrow. These normal stem cells subsequently evolved to become normal immune cells, and the results after three years were impressive. Those with conventional therapy relapsed 60 percent of the time, while the stem cell group relapsed only six percent.

But it is important to remember that this is only a preliminary study. However, rare positive news about a multiple sclerosis trial is worth noting. Despite the initial results, this new approach is a long way from being touted as a therapy. Not to be overlooked are the potential side effects, particularly in the steps needed to suppress immune cells. Moreover, treatments will be expensive and initially restricted to MS research centers.

However, keep an eye on this one. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a new approach to therapy!

 Guy McKhann, M.D., is professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He serves as scientific consultant for the Dana Foundation and scientific advisor for Brain in the News.