A risky adult stem cell clinical trial in Canada has proven effective in stopping and even reversing the symptoms in patients with severe cases of multiple sclerosis, a progressive disease of the immune system that is often untreatable.

The stem cell therapy was performed on 24 adult patients who were expected to be confined to a wheelchair within 10 years. After the treatment, most patients saw no further progress in their symptoms, and were even able to regain functions that had been taken away by the disease, such as their vision, balance, or ability to walk, the Guardian reports.  

The treatment performed by doctors in Canada is still considered highly risky, as it required the destruction and rebooting of each person’s immune system, causing the death of one of the 24 trial patients.

However, the other patients, who were followed for up to 13 years after the treatment, all experienced no further progression of the disease, which typically worsens over time. Many of these patients were able to go back to work and resume their other normal activities such as driving or playing sports.

Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease of the immune system, which attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Eventually, the disease can cause the nerves themselves to deteriorate or become permanently damaged.

Symptoms include a progressive loss of motor function, fatigue, vertigo, memory loss and depression. The disease affects approximately 2.3 million people throughout the world.

During the trial therapy, doctors first administered a drug to each patient that caused the stem cells in their bone marrow to move out into their bloodstream.

Doctors then extracted these stem cells, and processed them in a lab to purify them of the cells that cause MS. The patient was then given a drug that completely destroyed their immune system.

Finally, the newly purified stem cells were re-injected into the patient’s bloodstream, where they were able to make their way back into the bone marrow and slowly rebuild the immune system, free of the MS-causing cells.

While the Catholic Church does not support embryonic stem cell research that creates and destroys embryos for the sake of harvesting their cells, the Church does support ethical stem cell research and treatments such as those using umbilical cord stem cells or adult stem cells, like the ones used in the MS trial.

“Clearly, the Church favors ethically acceptable stem cell research. It opposes destroying some human lives now, on the pretext that this may possibly help other lives in the future. We must respect life at all times, especially when our goal is to save lives,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains on their website.

“The Catholic Church has long supported research using stem cells from adult tissue and umbilical cord blood, which poses no moral problem. Catholic institutions at times have taken the lead in promoting such constructive research, which is already providing cures and treatments for suffering patients,” their website reads.

In April, the Pontifical Council for Culture helped host a conference at the Vatican on “The Progress of Regenerative Medicine and its Cultural Impact”, which brought together doctors, researchers and bioethicists throughout the world to discuss the potential for adult stem cells and other ethical cellular therapies to treat cancer, diabetes and other debilitating medical conditions and diseases.

While the results of the MS study were promising, the treatment is still limited in its availability due to its high risk and specialized nature.

Mark Freedman, a neurologist at the University of Ottawa who co-led the trial, told The Guardian that while all patients experienced a halt in new brain inflammations, he was hesitant to call the treatment a cure.

“A cure would be stopping all disease moving forward and repairing all damage that has occurred. As far as we can ascertain no new damage seems to occur beyond the treatment and patients don’t need to take any medication, so in that sense I think it has induced a long-standing remission. Some patients did recover substantial function and it allowed them to do things they couldn’t do for years, but others did not,” he said.

Freedman also said that because of the risky nature of the stem cell transplant, only about 5-10 percent of MS patients would be eligible for the treatment. It would be considered too risky for those with milder forms of MS whose symptoms can largely be controlled by other medications.

Still, the results are promising for MS sufferers who go to great lengths to find ways to treat the disease. A neurologist in the U.K. is planning a similar study with a less intense drug, and with 180 participants.

The clinical trial in Ontario was funded by the MS Society of Canada, and the findings were published in the Lancet medical journal.

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