Scientists have used stem cell treatments to reverse disability in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients in as little as two years.

It's impossible to know when humanity will conquer the scourge that is MS, but if the results from recent clinical tests are anything to go by, we're well on our way there.

Earlier this month, scientists in the US published the results of a clinical study involving 24 patients with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) who had their immune systems destroyed and then rebuilt using their own blood stem cells. The team, from the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute, reported that three years after the treatment, 86 percent of the patients have had no relapses, and 91 percent are showing no signs of MS development.

While the technique they used is prohibitively expensive, and so severe, there is a risk of death in the patients receiving it, it's a really exciting step forward.

And now, the results of a separate MS clinical study using the same technique on four times as many patients have been published, and there's even more encouraging news for those affected relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), which affects around 85 percent of MS patients around the world.

The study, led by Richard K. Burt, Chief of the Division of Medicine-Immunotherapy and Autoimmune Diseases at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in the US, centres around a treatment called Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), which involves the transplantation of stem cells, usually derived from bone marrow, peripheral blood, or umbilical cord blood, into an MS patient. 

Burt's team gathered 82 patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), and similar to the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute trial, dampened their immune systems using low-dose chemotherapy. They then rebuilt the immune system using stem cells harvested from the patients' own blood. Upon returning home, the patients needed no medication to maintain the effects of the stem cell transplant, and their health was measured over the next few years.

The researchers assessed the volunteers' walking ability, motor skills, level of cognition and quality of life using what's known as the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). Publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they report that just two years after receiving the transplant, half the patients had experienced a significant improvement in disability, and four years after the treatment, 80 percent of them were relapse-free.

According to Jeri Burtchell at Healthline News, right now, medical treatments for MS can cost around $5,000 per month, and they must be taken indefinitely or the patient will experience relapses. Burt's stem cell treatment, on the other hand, will cost $125,000, which sounds like a whole lot, but he told Burtchell that since this is a one-time payment, it'll start paying for itself in around two years time.

"The caveat is this is not effective in progressive MS," Burt told Healthline News. "If you're doing well on first-line therapies, interferons or Copaxone, good, that's where you should stay. But if you're having frequent relapses, two or more a year despite those therapies … I think that's the group that, rather than going to Tysabri or Fingolimod, should be given this therapy because it's so much more beneficial. Plus, if you wait until you've had all those other [disease-modifying therapies, or DMTs] then you increase the risk of this treatment."

Burt's team is now looking for volunteers to help them extend their trial, and you can sign up to be involved at their website. 

Here's one of Burt's patients, Roxane Beygi, speaking at the 2013 Adult Stem Cell Conference saying she could barely walk, had hallucinations, couldn't brush her teeth or put on make-up, and even drinking out of a glass was an ordeal for her. And that's if she could get out of bed. And then there were the side effects of her medication, which she describes as "torture". You should see her now:

Source: Healthline News