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MS Society Announces $2.4M to Continue Ottawa Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplant Trial

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The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada announced a $2.4 million grant to continue a closely-watched clinical trial involving an experimental bone marrow stem cell transplant therapy. The trial is being conducted by a team of Canadian MS specialists led by Dr. Mark Freedman and Dr. Harry Atkins in Ottawa.

“The aim of the study was to see if this treatment protocol could halt deterioration in a group of MS patients with rapidly progressive disease,” says Jon Temme, vice president of client services and research for the MS Society. “Currently, the majority of the 18 patients have stabilized or improved, and the focus of this second phase of the trial will be to determine if this stabilization can be maintained.”

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord. Between 55,000 and 75,000 Canadians have MS making it the most common neurological disease of young adults in Canada. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40.

MS symptoms are unpredictable and vary greatly from person to person but can include: double or blurred vision; extreme fatigue; loss of balance; stiffness of muscles; speech problems; bladder and bowel problems; and even partial or complete paralysis.

“The idea behind this clinical trial is to replace the diseased immune system with a new one derived from the patient’s own bone marrow stem cells,” explains Dr. Harry Atkins, a scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, bone marrow transplant specialist at The Ottawa Hospital, and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

“First we purify and freeze the patient’s stem cells, then we use strong chemotherapy to destroy their existing immune system, and then we transplant the purified stem cells back into the patient. It takes time, but eventually these stem cells will form a completely new immune system – one that does not attack the brain and spinal cord – we hope,” Atkins continued.

A similar procedure has been used to treat certain types of blood cancer for more than 25 years, but applying the procedure to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS is novel.

“We hoped that this therapy would halt or slow the progression of MS, and in the patients examined so far, it seems to have worked,” says Dr. Mark Freedman, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, director of The Ottawa Hospital MS Clinic, and professor at the University of Ottawa.

“In addition, some patients have experienced substantial improvements in their ability to see and walk. This was unexpected, and it suggests the exciting possibility that the therapy may be contributing to some sort of repair or regeneration. With this funding, we can investigate this further.”

The researchers note that the therapy is highly experimental and potential side effects are serious, but the knowledge gained could lead to significant improvements in the treatment of MS and other autoimmune diseases.

The grant to extend the project comes from the MS Scientific Research Foundation which receives the majority of its funding from the MS Society of Canada.