Scientists in recent years have found a way to infuse stem cells into the brains of animals to repair damage to the central nervous system, offering some of the most encouraging news yet for people with MS.
A $12.1 million study soon will be under way in Buffalo and two other upstate medical centers that will for the first time begin to test the procedure in people.
The hope is that the stem cells will generate new Myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds nerves like the insulation on a wire. Myelin is damaged in MS, leading to weak or lost signals between nerves.
The upstate consortium study for MS, which is funded by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, is the first step in a typical research process, which occurs in phases and usually takes many years to complete.
In the first two phases, scientists test the safety and effectiveness of an experimental treatment, and that’s what will happen with this stem cell trial for MS. People enrolled in the study will be those with secondary progressive MS. Small holes will be drilled into their skulls and stem cells injected through catheters inserted in the holes.
The current plan, dependent on government approval, is to start with stem cells from the patient’s own skin cells and reprogram them into cells useful for making myelin.
Before the first patients can receive the treatment in 2016, researchers must spend the next few years preparing for the trial. Among other things, they need to refine how they will measure the repair of myelin, as well as improvements in the patients. Improvements are likely to occur slowly and will vary from person to person, researchers said.
Although stem cells show great promise, the approach is a ways from becoming reality. What works in mice does not always work in humans. In addition, scientists don’t know what causes MS, so they can’t exactly replicate MS in animals, complicating tests of the potential new treatment.
“Expectations have to be kept under control. You’re not going to implant stem cells in people and suddenly see them running around,” said Dr. Bianca Guttman-Weinstock, co-principal investigator at the University of Buffalo.
Information provided by the MS Foundation