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Stem Cell Therapy: Safe and Effective for Relapsing MS

A recent study taking place in the US, UK, Sweden and Brazil proved Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (HCST) to be a safe and effective treatment for people with a relapsing form of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). HSCT “is more effective at preventing disease progression compared to currently used disease-modifying therapies, according to the new study published…in JAMA.” (CNN)

110 patients who had relapsing-remitting MS participated in the clinical trial. Patients were randomly given either the HSCT treatment or another DMT (disease-modifying therapy), different from the classes they had previously used.

Only three out of 55 patients receiving HSCT showed progression after a year. However, 34 out of the 55 patients who received the DMT showed progression after a year.

In the HSCT group, 2% of patients had disease progression after two years, 5% after three years, and 10% after years 4 and 5.

By contrast, in the DMT patients, almost 25% showed progression of disease after one year, more than 50% after two years, and just under 75% at five years.

What is MS?

In MS, the immune system damages the brain and spinal cord. This happens “when myelin, a white fatty coating that insulates the body’s nerves, is mistakenly labeled as a foreign invader, [and is then] attacked, and stripped from the nervous system by the immune system. Without insulation, neurons lose their important ability to conduct electrical signals.”

The cause of this happening is unclear; but 2.3 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with MS.

Symptoms of MS:

  • Fatigue
  • Numbness or tingling in face, body or extremities
  • Muscle weakness, and spasms
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Sexual problems
  • Pain
  • Emotional changes
  • Walking difficulties
  • Stiffness
  • Vision problems
  • Bladder and Bowel problems
  • Cognitive changes
  • Depression

What is HCST?

The purpose of HCST is to reboot and restore the immune system.

What is involved in the procedure?

Depending on the doctor and medical center, treatment protocols vary, but the general steps are the same:

  1. Chemotherapy is given for up to 10 days. “This stimulates production of bone marrow stem cells and promotes their release into the blood.”(National Multiple Sclerosis Society) Then blood is drawn and the stem cells in that blood are stored for later use.
  2. The patient is then hospitalized and given more powerful chemotherapy for up to 11 days, which kills the immune cells in the body.
  3. The stored stem cells are put into the bloodstream through a vein.
  4. An antibiotic is usually given to help combat infection.
  5. The immune system begins to rebuild itself. The patient will remain in the hospital for two to four weeks, possibly longer, depending on side effects experienced.

Who is eligible?

A patient must meet very specific medical criteria before being eligible for HSCT:

  • Must have evidence of new lesions (by MRI)
  • Required to have tried two different DMT’s which have failed to control the MS
  • “People with early progressive MS may be considered if there are still signs of active inflammation (either relapses or lesions on an MRI.” (National MS Society)


Clinical trials show HSCT can reduce relapses, especially for people with relapsing MS. Some patients have more stable or improved symptoms.

Patients who have progressive MS had encouraging results when treated early in their condition, when there was still evidence of inflammation. HSCT has also “been shown to slow clinical progression in a few people with early secondary progressive MS.”


HCST is not FDA-approved, but is considered experimental. Because it a very aggressive treatment, HSCT comes with high risks and complications:

  • Increased, long-term risk of developing infections
  • Increased risk of developing cancer and autoimmune conditions
  • Early menopause
  • Fertility problems

Of course, the chemotherapy itself has side effects as well:

  • Bleeding and bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss

Also, patients who have a high level of disability before transplant may have more loss of mobility and worsened neurological function.

If you’re considering HSCT, talk to your neurologist to find out if it may be the right treatment for you.

The Law Offices of David L. Hood: Representing Social Security Disability Applicants in South Carolina

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