There continues to be a great deal of interest in stem cell treatments for MS but only limited information has been available about how people do in the longer term following a transplant. Two recently published studies have reported data on levels of disability in people with MS five years after receiving stem cell transplants.
In one study, researchers requested data from 25 centres which had used a range of stem cell treatment methods to treat people with either relapsing or progressive MS between January 1995 and December 2006. Five years after treatment, just under half of the 281 people for whom data was available had not experienced an increase in their disability. A second study has reported long-term results of stem cell therapy in 24 people with highly active relapsing MS. After five years, about two thirds continued to show no relapses, no progression and no new lesions.
While the results from these two studies are very promising, neither of these two studies included comparative groups receiving either placebo or an alternative treatment so it is not possible to say whether the people in these studies have done better (or worse) than people who did not have stem cell transplants. Stem cell transplants are not without risks; although treatment regimens, patient selection and after-care have reduced risk, clinical trials since 2001 have still had treatment-related death rates of one or two people in every 100.
Both of these studies acknowledge that to fully assess the risks and benefits of stem cell treatments, understand where they fit into current treatment options for MS and make them more widely available as a treatment option, what we really need now is evidence from controlled, randomised clinical trials directly comparing stem cell treatments against other treatments in both relapsing remitting and progressive MS. Further information is available from the MS Trust
MS Ireland agrees that stem cell transplants are a very promising area of research for MS. However, a lot more clinical and safety data is required before stem cell transplants can be recommended as a mainstream treatment. There are currently no clinical trials being carried out into stem cell treatment in Ireland, as the country does not have a large enough population to support a trial. Some organisations are offering access to stem cell treatment commercially via the internet, whereby individuals are expected to pay for the therapy. Costs vary from between £30,000 to £85,000. MS Ireland advises that these centres should be avoided. Unless the programme is part of a clinical trial, it may be operating with lower standards of safety than would be required in authorised trials. In addition adequate follow up and monitoring is often not provided by centres that are not running a clinical trial program.