Stem Cell Therapy and Immune Markers: Key Advancements in the Research and Treatment of Multiple Sclerosis

When nerves have barren patches without myelin, they can no longer properly conduct electrical signals… the therapy involves the harvesting of stem cells from bone marrow.

Over 400,000 Americans are affected by Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disease that causes an erosion of the insulating fat (myelin) that surrounds nerves. When someone is affected by the disease, it is because white blood cells (T lymphocytes) have crossed the usually impermeable blood-brain barrier, and have eaten away at the myelin, leading to barren patches.

When nerves have barren patches without myelin, they can no longer properly conduct electrical signals; leading to neurological issues and physical symptoms including numbness, loss of balance, tingling, weakness in the extremities and/or a general lack of physical coordination.

Stem Cell Therapy

Some patients with MS are trying new, aggressive therapies, including stem cell therapy treatment. The pioneer of the stem cell therapy treatment is Dr. Saud A. Sadiq of the Tisch MS Research Center of New York. While still in its early stages, the therapy involves the harvesting of stem cells from patients’ bone marrow. The stem cells are then transformed in a laboratory into “neural progenitors”. The neural progenitors are then injected into the patient’s spinal fluid. The intent is that the neural progenitors could eventually lead to the repair of the myelin sheaths in the brain.

Stem cell therapy treatment is just one part of a broader push to understand the neurological disorders that affect the structure of the brain. As the baby boomer generation ages, more and more people within that age group may become affected by disorders such as MS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A commitment has been made by the White House to allocate $100 million in federal research funds for initiatives geared at understanding the brain. In addition, organizations such as the Ann Romney (wife of Mitt Romney) Center for Neurologic Diseases are also working towards understanding the brain and its neurological disorders, in an effort to find treatments, and ultimately cures.

Pinpointing an Immune Marker: The Next Frontier

Many doctors and researchers have questioned that if MS is an immune disease, then there should be something known as an immune marker. For this reason, finding a biomarker that could be identified through a blood test would represent one of the next major frontiers in MS research. Potential biomarkers that could signal the presence of MS have already been identified in some studies. In addition, it has been discovered that MS patients have an elevated level of a protein called serpin A3 in their tears—another possible clue to early detection.

While previous breakthroughs have found ways to slow the progress of MS and perhaps lessen the severity of symptoms, the breakthrough that everyone most wants to find is the one that may heal the brain, not just seal it off from future attacks.

Reversing the Damage Through Cell Stimulation

Dr. Ari J. Green of the University of California at San Francisco, is a researcher working to find a way to heal the brain. His mission isn’t just to stop the disease, but to also reverse it by finding a way to stimulate cells called oligodendrocytes, which make myelin, to repair the nerves stripped by MS. Instead of injecting stem cells like in Dr. Sadiq’s therapy, Dr. Green is trying to strengthen the body to do the repairs itself.

While research and testing continue, there are factors/symptoms that people should be aware of.

Risk Factors

Research has shown that while MS does not have a high rate of inheritability, there is a genetic component rooted principally in a family of immune genes called the major histocompatibility complex. Other risk factors are environment, including a lack of Vitamin D, and smoking.

Be Aware of the Early Symptoms

Many people feel numbness in their arm or leg or a tingling in their spine and simply dismiss it as a pinched nerve. Or, they may feel off-balance or fatigued, and think they are just coming down with something. Early intervention could have a very significant effect in shaping the outcome of MS treatment, so alerting your physician to these conditions and/or being tested is critical. Often, by the time a person seeks out a physician and is diagnosed, a significant amount of damage may have already been done to their brain.

For more information on multiple sclerosis, check out the Newsweek article; On the Hunt for a Multiple Sclerosis Cure.