Stem cell therapy holds a promising future for many devastating diseases such as MS and cancer. For individuals who are thinking of stem cell therapy for MS, it is important to consider the many stem cell therapy benefits and disadvantages to decide whether or not this treatment is right for you. It is therefore in our best interest to look deeper into what stem cell therapy is and whether there are side effects or concerns that need to be addressed.
Stem Cell Therapy for MS
There two main types of stem cells being used for MS therapy research. They are NSCs (neural stem cells) and MSCs (mesenchymal stem cells). These two types of cells can help with the 2 main devastating effects of MS, namely remyelination and immunomodulation.
Remyelination is the reformation of the myelin sheath that covers and protects nerve fibers. Immunomodulation is a procedure that restarts the body’s immune system so that it no longer attacks the new tissues that are formed by therapy. The third step of fighting MS by stem cell therapy is regerenation of nerve cells so that the damaged ones can be replaced.
Stem Cell Therapy Benefits
Ethically safe: Since these cells are harvested from the adult patient themselves, they are free from ethical barriers attached to the use of ESCs (embryonic stem cells), are not tumourogenic (tumor-causing), and do not require immunosuppresssion. These cells are already in the pre-clinical and clinical trials and do have the ability to bring a solution for MS patients.
Combined therapy: MSCs are easy to harvest and exist in large numbers in our body. These cells also form myelin precursor cells more easily. NSCs easily differentiate into new neural cells to replace the damaged ones.
Minimally invasive and on-site: Stem cell therapy with MSCs is minimally invasive with only a 4-5 hour procedure similar to liposuction where the cells are introduced into the body. The patient does not require overnight hospitalization and does not need to come back for frequent visits. NSCs, on the other hand, are infused into the cerebrospinal fluid, however, this procedure ensure that the cells are introduced at the target site.
Natural approach: Stem cell therapy essentially kick-starts the body’s own mechanisms against nerve damage and myelin fiber damage, which would reduce the number of drugs that need to be taken and in turn, their side effects. It would be similar to re-introducing the body’s own defense mechanisms to itself to yield a more natural healing solution.
Easy acceptance by body: Since these stem cells are also derived from the patient’s own body, the body hardly ever rejects them, which means less post-procedural complications and less frequency for check-ups. General follow-ups are done to keep track of the study and record results, however, the patient is least disturbed. This feature of stem cell therapy also frees the patient from taking immunosuppresants and falling prey to other sicknesses.
Stem Cell Therapy Disadvantages
Not enough research and case studies: Stem cell therapy is a fairly new treatment option for many patients and is still in its infancy in terms of studies and research. It can therefore be laced with unpredictability compared to other forms of treatment used for MS patients. Therefore, a lot of questions and concerns remains unanswered that scientists are still working hard to figure out the answers to.
Not approved in many countries: A large number of countries have not approved stem cell therapy as a safe treatment. In order to get approve, health departments need to review many details including dose, dosing frequency, the exact sequence of drugs, or in this case cells, and then the short-term as well as long-term benefits or side effects. Although pre-clinical and clinical trials are underway right now to hash out these details for patients in order to establish a model therapy that can be introduced to patients, it is still years away from being supported by local governments worldwide.
No current animal model: The problem with treating MS is that it is a very complex disease attacking multiple systems in the body at the same time. No such disease exists in the animal world where therapies for it can be tested. Therefore, scientists pick animal models and induce symptoms that are like MS but not exactly MS. The symptoms are also studied in isolation in the study animals.
While some animals are treated for induced demyelinization, others are treated for an induced autoimmune attack. Therefore, the therapies that do emerge cannot be verified as treatment for MS where these symptoms occur simultaneously in one organism. There is no way to tell what the results would be or if the therapy would even be helpful. No such study has been performed to test the efficacy of stem cell therapy when done on MS since it only occurs is humans.
Stem cell differentiation is unknown: In addition, the exact differentiation method of various stem cells into their differentiated cells is not completely known and therefore also adds to the uncertainty of treating MS with stem cell therapy. Since the process of differentiation is not known, it becomes difficult to control. While MSCs do help with remyelination by making oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), NSCs have a less number of cells that help with myelin repair. NSCs are also difficult to harvest and introduce.
1. Stem Cells, HSCT and Other Promising Approaches to Treating MS: http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Research/Research-We-Fund/Restoring-What-s-Been-Lost/Repairing-Damaged-Tissues/Stem-Cells-in-MS
2. MS stem cell treatment only a ‘miracle’ for some: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/03March/Pages/miracle-stem-cell-treatment-for-multiple-sclerosis-reboots-immune-sytem.aspx
3. Can Stem Cell studies help patients with Multiple Sclerosis?: https://stemgenex.com/studies/multiple-sclerosis-stem-cell-studies/
4. About Multiple Sclerosis: http://stemcellfoundation.ca/en/diseases/multiple-sclerosis/
5. FDA Approves MSC-NP Therapy as Investigational New Drug in MS Clinical Trial: A Research Milestone
6. Cell therapy for multiple sclerosis: a new hope: http://biohorizons.oxfordjournals.org/content/7/hzu014.full
7. Stem cells for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases: http://www.stemcellres.com/content/1/5/37