Scientists have long realized that multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease, and that the immune system, in a manner, attacks the brain and spinal cord. These inflammatory lesions cause patients to have severe neurological symptoms. Therefore, treatments for multiple sclerosis have focused on controlling the immune system.

There are current treatments of care for MS patients to manage their symptoms. They can help minimize the severity of the disease, but they may cause serious side effects. Consequently, researchers are constantly looker for newer, safer, less expensive alternatives.

While the precise cause of MS is still unknown, multiple sclerosis lesions contain high levels of an immune cell, specifically CD4+ T cells. These T cells become active in the central nervous system and interfere with the function of other T cells (regulatory T cells). Simply put, whatever causes MS creates abnormal regulatory T cells; healthy regulatory T cells are important for maintaining a balance between helpful and harmful immune system functions.

In the scientific research journal Oncotarget, Yang and co-authors showed experimentally for the first time that umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells could repair defective regulatory T cells in patients with MS.

The scientists collected mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord tissue (the tissue that is usually thrown away as medical waste after live birth). They also collected peripheral blood mononuclear cells (i.e. T cells, B cells, natural killer cells, and monocytes) from patients with MS and healthy volunteers. Stem cells and peripheral blood mononuclear cells were combined in the lab for 3 days. After incubation, samples with stem cells had a higher proportion of regulatory T cells, and those regulatory T cells had greatly improved their function. In fact, stem cell treatment made the defective regulatory T cells function much like regulatory T cells from healthy volunteers.

More work must be done to take this technology from the lab and into the clinic, but the proof of concept is remarkable. Stem cell treatment has been shown to be safe in scores of clinical trials. Thus, if umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells can improve regulatory T cell function in patients with MS, the impact could be beneficial to help improve multiple sclerosis symptoms.

Reference: Yang, H., et al. (2016). Umbilical cord-derived mesenchymal stem cells reversed the suppressive deficiency of T regulatory cells from peripheral blood of patients with multiple sclerosis in a co-culture – a preliminary study. Oncotarget 2016; 7:72537-72545.

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