The great promise of stem cells may finally be getting close for multiple sclerosis patients.
Stem cells, which have the power to transform into other types of cells, have been much anticipated for more than a decade as a way to treat or even cure diseases like MS, Parkinson's, blindness and spinal cord injuries. But it's taken time to turn that promise into a workable reality.
Two new studies, both published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, suggest that researchers are getting close.
"We haven't landed on the moon yet, but we've tested the rockets," said Jeanne Loring, author of one of the studies and a professor and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
Her study found that a certain type of stem cell, injected once into the spinal cords of mice with an MS-like condition, could dramatically improve the animals for at least six months.
The mice's immune systems almost immediately rejected and destroyed the cells, known as human embryonic stem cell-derived neural precursor cells. But the cells seemed to trigger a long-lasting benefit, dampening inflammation to slow the disease's progression, and repairing the damaged sheathing around nerve cells that is the hallmark of MS, according to Thomas Lane, a neural immunologist at the University of Utah who helped lead the research.
The other study, led by Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts-based biotech, showed that mice with an MS-like disease could be restored to near normal by injecting them with a different type of stem cell. When injected, these cells – mesenchymal stem cells derived from human embryonic stem cells – were able to home in on damaged cells in the nervous system, even crossing the blood-brain barrier, Lanza said.
They not only reduced the symptoms of the disease, but prevented more damage to nerve cells, he said.
The two studies together "speak to the changing role of stem cells and their potential as treatment strategies for MS," said Tim Coetzee with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, an advocacy group. The idea of using stem cells in MS has been around for a while, but these two studies overcome some of the challenges of finding a therapy that can be consistent and effective for many people.
"They set the stage quite impressively for potential work in humans," he said, with clinical trials likely within the next few years.
There's still room for skepticism, Lane said. Researchers have been surprised many times before when techniques that looked incredibly promising in rodents didn't pan out in people.
But still, he said he's quite optimistic. In the 1980s, there were no good treatments for MS; now there are numerous drugs to address the disease's early stage, and the innovations are just beginning.
"I think in the next 5-10 years there will be an explosion of new therapies, potentially involving stem cells or products derived from stem cells," Lane said. "I think it's just going to grow exponentially."
In the meantime, both Lane and Loring emphasized that commercial clinics offering stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis are preying on desperate people and providing nothing more than expensive "garbage."