Stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis shows promise

A pioneering new stem cell treatment is reversing and then halting the potentially crippling effects of multiple sclerosis.

Patients embarking on a ground-breaking trial of the new treatment have found they can walk again and that the disease even appears to be stopped in its tracks.

Holly Drewry, 25, from Sheffield, who was wheelchair bound after the birth of her daughter Isla, now two.

But Miss Drewry claims the new treatment has transformed her life.

She told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “I couldn’t walk steadily. I couldn’t trust myself holding her (Isla) in case I fell. Being a new mum I wanted to do it all properly but my MS was stopping me from doing it.

“It is scary because you think, when is it going to end?”

The treatment is being carried out at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield and Kings College Hospital, London and involves use a high dose of chemotherapy to knock out the immune system before rebuilding it with stem cells taken from the patient’s own blood.

Miss Drewry had the treatment in Sheffield. She said: “I started seeing changes within days of the stem cells being put in.

“I walked out of the hospital. I walked into my house and hugged Isla. I cried and cried. It was a bit overwhelming. It was a miracle.”

Her treatment has now been reviewed and her condition found to have been dramatically halted. She will need to be monitored for years but the hope is that her transplant will be a permanent fix.

She is now planning to get married.

For other patients, the results have been equally dramatic. Steven Storey was a marathon runner and triathlete before he was struck down with the disease and left completely paralyzed: “I couldn’t flicker a muscle,” he said.

But within nine days of the treatment he could move his toe and after 10 months managed a mile-long swim in the Lake District. He has also managed to ride a bike and walk again.

“It was great. I felt I was back,” he said.

Mr Storey celebrated his first transplant birthday with his daughters. His treatment has been reviewed and, like Miss Drewry, there was no evidence of active disease.

Stem cells
Stem cells

The treatment – which effectively ‘reboots’ the immune systems – is the first to reverse the symptoms of MS, which has no cure, and affects around 100,000 people in Britain.

Stem cells are so effective because they can become any cell in the body based on their environment.

Although it is unclear what causes MS, some doctors believe that it is the immune system itself which attacks the brain and spinal cord, leading to inflammation and pain, disability and in severe cases, death.

Professor Basil Sharrack, a consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous.

“This is not a word I would use lightly, but we have seen profound neurological improvements.”

During the treatment, the patient’s stem cells are harvested and stored. Then doctors use aggressive drugs which are usually given to cancer patients to completely destroy the immune system.

The harvested stem cells are then infused back into the body where they start to grow new red and white blood cells within just two weeks.

Within a month the immune system is back up and running fully and that is when patients begin to notice that they are recovering.

However specialists warn that patients need to be fit to benefit from the new treatment.

The research has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lung cancer patients are to be offered new drug

Lung cancer patients are to be offered a ‘game-changing’ treatment that trains the body to single out and attack diseased cells.

It is being made available under a Government policy that enables life-saving treatments to be fast-tracked through the licensing process that usually takes years.

Administered every two weeks, the drug nivolumab works by teaching the body’s immune system to attack cancerous cells.

Evidence shows the effect continues for several years after the treatment has stopped. Experts have hailed such immunotherapy as a ‘new era’ in the fight against cancer. Early trials have suggested it doubles survival rates.

From today, doctors will be able to offer nivolumab free to patients with advanced lung cancer, for whom surgery is no longer an option. The costs will be footed by the manufacturer, Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The therapy differs from ‘blanket’ treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy which kill all cells including healthy ones.

This means there are fewer debilitating side effects such as fatigue, sickness, hair loss and infections caused by healthy cells being destroyed.

Some skin cancer patients previously diagnosed as terminal have been able to return to work following immunotherapy. They only need to top up jabs every few months.

Lung cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the illness. Only 5 per cent of patients are still alive ten years after diagnosis.

It is also the second most common – after breast in women and prostate in men – with 43,000 new cases each year.

Nivolumab is the third treatment made available through the Early Access To Medicines Scheme which bypasses red tape that can last up to a decade.

Lung cancer
Lung cancer (Right)

Manufacturers submit data on new drugs to experts at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for assessment.

If the watchdog is satisfied the treatment can be beneficial without causing harm, it is made available to patients.

Costs are covered by the manufacturer until the drug is formally licensed in the usual way.

The scheme means patients are effectively guinea pigs testing out new drugs and possible side effects, but the Government hopes it will save hundreds of lives.

George Freeman, Life Sciences Minister, said: ‘The positive scientific opinion of nivolumab offers real hope to those who need it most… I hope this is just one of many drugs that will be made available.’

A trial involving 272 patients found 42 per cent taking nivolumab were alive a year later, compared with just 24 per cent who had chemotherapy. Some of those on the drug are still living two years on.

Dr Tom Newsom-Davis, consultant cancer specialist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said: ‘Lung cancer is one of the most difficult to treat … early access to nivolumab is therefore very positive … patients have the potential to access a new medicine which has shown in clinical studies to offer significant extension of survival.’

Manufacturers say 10,000 UK patients could benefit from the jab. Last month experts said immunotherapy was a ‘game-changer’ and the biggest breakthrough since chemotherapy.