In recent weeks we’ve covered new experimental treatments that involve injecting stem cells into patients to treat conditions like stroke and spinal injury. But in a new study, British researchers have pinpointed the possibility—in rats at least—of stimulating the body’s own stem cells to repair the chronic damage brought on by multiple sclerosis.
In MS patients, the immune system mistakenly attacks what’s called the myelin sheath, the protective layer around the axons of nerve cells.
The loss of myelin in MS sufferers leads to damage to the nerve fibres in the brain that send messages to other parts of the body, leading to symptoms ranging from mild numbness to crippling paralysis. [AFP]
It started as an observation in a Seattle cancer ward, where oncologist Marc Chamberlain noticed that his male patients were often receiving steadfast support from their wives, while his female patients often didn’t have husbands hovering at their bedsides. Based on this anecdotal evidence, Chamberlain decided to investigate divorce rates among couples where one person had recently been diagnosed with a serious illness. His findings raise troubling questions about the loyalty of the male sex.
The study included diagnoses of both cancer and multiple sclerosis and found an overall divorce rate of nearly 12 percent, which is similar to that found in the normal population. But when the researchers looked at gender differences, they found the rate was nearly 21 percent when women were the patients compared with about 3 percent when men got the life-threatening diagnosis. The researchers suggest men are less able to commit, on the spot, to being caregivers to a sick partner, while women are better at assuming such home and family responsibilities [LiveScience]. However, the study did find that the divorce rate was lower in longer marriages.
Infusions of stem cells taken from multiple sclerosis patients’ own bone marrows have shown great promise in rolling back symptoms of the disease. In a small study, researchers found that 81 percent of the participants still showed some improvement three years after the treatment, and the rest of the patients had not deteriorated. “All therapies to date … have focused on slowing the progression of disease,” said [lead researcher] Richard Burt…. “What this actually did is that it reversed disability. This is the first time we have turned the tide on this disease” [Chicago Sun-Times].
In multiple sclerosis, or MS, the patients’ immune systems turn on their own central nervous systems, stripping the protective myelin sheaths from nerve fibers and leading to problems with vision, balance, and coordination. The researcher team tested the new treatment on 21 patients in the early stages of the disease, when symptoms alternately flare up and recede. Burt and his colleagues had previously tried using stem cells to reverse this process in patients with advanced stages of the disease, with little success. “If you wait until there’s neuro-degeneration, you’re trying to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped,” says Burt. What you really want to do is stop the autoimmune attack before it causes nerve-cell damage, he adds [New Scientist].
A leukemia drug has shown great promise in treating multiple sclerosis patients, decreasing neurological symptoms and in some cases even allowing patients to rebuild damaged brain tissue, according to a new study.
Lead researcher Alasdair Coles says the findings offer new hope to patients suffering from the incurable disease: “Not only can this drug stop the disease in its tracks it can reverse patients disabilities. They can walk farther and work for longer. Their lives have started again. This was not expected, the best anyone thought we could hope for with MS drugs was to prevent the condition getting any worse” [Telegraph]. But the drug, named alemtuzumab, also caused some serious side effects that researchers are still investigating.