Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis(ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) are two separate diseases with some important similarities. Both ALS and MS interfere with a person’s ability to move. In both diseases, nerve cells are affected. In fact, in both diseases, cells of the immune system seem to attack and destroy the material that wraps around nerve fibers. Without this covering, nerve cells do not function properly, which is why muscle weakness and other problems occur in both ALS and MS.
Traditional treatments for MS and ALS are different. More than 15 drugs are approved to treat MS. In many patients, one or more of these treatments can help reduce flareups and perhaps slow the progression of the disease (ocrelizumab in progressive MS). ALS, on the other hand, is a very progressive condition. Two drugs (riluzole and edaravone) modestly slow down the rate at which ALS gets worse. Neither MS nor ALS, it should be mentioned, can be cured.
Because of the similarities between these distinct diseases, researchers conducted a clinical trial of both MS and ALS patients. The doctors infused mesenchymal stem cells into patients and followed their progress. The goals of the study were to determine if stem cell infusion was safe and if it was effective.
In MS patients, stem cell infusion helped reduce physical disability (mean score on the Expanded Disability Status Scale improved) for at least six months. In ALS patients, mesenchymal stem cell infusion appeared to stabilize the disease for at least six months (average score on the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Functional Rating Scale stayed the same). Given that ALS patients tend to decline rapidly, maintaining stability is actually a great success.
Interestingly, researchers conducted an MRI the day after stem cell infusion and found the stem cells were already moving to various places around the brain and spinal cord. This finding suggests that stem cell infusion works very rapidly, and that stem cells target diseased regions within the body.
It should be noted that many patients had temporary symptoms related to the injection such as fever and headache. The symptoms went away within days, however. Importantly, no major adverse events occurred during two years of follow-up.
Taken together, this research suggests that mesenchymal stem cell transplantation is a safe and effective treatment for patients with MS and ALS. Moreover, this infusion causes virtually immediate effects in the central nervous system. While more research is needed, these results may offer hope to patients with these challenging neurological diseases.
Reference: Karussis, D. et al. (2010). Safety and immunological effects of mesenchymal stem cell transplantation in patients with multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Archives of Neurology. 2010 Oct;67(10):1187-94.