A major study into haemotopoietic stem cell transplantation treatment for Multiple Sclerosis has found that it is “stunningly” better than drug treatments, according to one of the doctors involved.

The study looked at 110 patients in Chicago in the US, Sheffield in the UK, Uppsala in Sweden and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

It looked at treatments for relapsing and remitting MS and the results were released at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation in Lisbon.

It compared haemotopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) with drug treatment. HSCT involves wiping out a patient’s immune system using chemotherapy drugs and then restoring it using their own stem cells which are extracted during the process. Patients must spend a month in an isolation room whilst their immune system rebuilds.

HSCT is already available under certain circumstances to MS patients in the UK through the National Health Service.

The study found that of the 55 patients undergoing HSCT it looked at only one relapse of MS had occurred a year after treatment versus 39 in the drug group taking other “disease modifying therapies”.

Lead investigator Richard Burt told the BBC: “The data is stunningly in favour of transplant against the best available drugs – the neurological community has been sceptical about this treatment, but these results will change that.”

Some 2.5m people around the world are reckoned to suffer from MS, including 100,000 in the UK.

Professor Basil Sharrack, who helped lead the UK arm of the trial, said: “Almost all patients receiving autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation showed no signs of their disease being active a year on from having the treatment. And more importantly, their level of disability improved significantly.”

The results of the trial now need to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Director of research at the UK-based MS Society Dr Susan Kohlhaas said: “The MIST results are important and show this area needs further research. While HSCT appears to be effective for some people with MS, it remains a high-risk treatment that won’t be right for everyone. We now need to know how HSCT compares to existing, less aggressive, MS treatment options.”

She added: “HSCT will soon be recognised as an established treatment in England. And when that happens our priority will be making sure those who could benefit can actually get it. We’ve seen life changing results for some people and having that opportunity can’t depend on your postcode.”

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What are the risks of HSCT?

The MS Society has previously warned of the risks associated with HSCT, which it said include:

  • an increased, long-term risk of developing infections
  • an increased risk of developing cancer and autoimmune conditions, such as thyroiditis
  • early menopause
  • fertility problems.

It is said that according to a European register 1.3 per cent of those undertakling HSCT have died as a result of the treatment.

How HSCT works (credit: the MS Society):

Diagram showing how Multiple Sclerosis Treatment HSCT works from the MS Society (via The MS Society)