A true inspiration, Robinson has continued to live her life to its fullest and remains hopeful that there may one day be a cure. In our conversation, she told me about a stem cell trial in Ottawa she had heard about.
Now, it won’t be too long until the entire country hears about it.
Canadian doctors have managed to reverse severe MS using stem cells, virtually eliminating it from a patient’s body. Jennifer Molson had crippling MS before she participated in a study that involved chemotherapy and a stem cell bone marrow transplant in 2002. Molson was one of a small cohort of 24 people who received the high-risk, experimental therapy. Led by Dr. Mark Freedman and Dr. Harold Atkins at the Ottawa Hospital, the clinical trial spanned over 13 years.
Of the patients, 70% saw the progression of their disease halted or reversed as their symptoms began to diminish. While Molson could barely walk or feed herself pre-trial, she now drives, kayaks, runs and skis, and hasn’t experienced any symptoms of the disease for 14 years.
It’s been hailed as remarkable by industry professionals, as the trial seems to “cure” people of their symptoms.
The experience of the cohort was documented in a paper published this week in The Lancet. It’s being called the first to describe any MS treatment that fully stops the disease over the long-term without MS medication. “This is the first treatment to produce this level of disease control or neurological recovery” from MS, said The Lancet in a news release.
MS affects 20 million people globally, but tends to target females in more temperate climates like Canada and the northern U.S.
The disease is characterized by an immune system that turns on the host and attacks the protective coating around the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord. These attacks can severely damage and destroy the nerves and protective coating, affecting the communication between the brain and the body and leading to symptoms like numbness, loss of balance, difficulty walking, loss of control of bowel and bladder, and even blindness.
Over time, patients lose control of their bodies and are often confined to wheelchairs.
Not all types of MS have the same affects. The least evil of the disease is “relapsing-remitting,” whereby the symptoms come and go and can be followed by long periods of remission. For most people, however, this version of the disease usually progresses into secondary progressive MS over time, whereby the symptoms start to stick. The most aggressive form of the disease is primary progressive MS. In this case, patients don’t experience bouts of remission, but rather a continuous decline in their health and a worsening of their symptoms.
At the time of her treatment, Molson had secondary progressive MS. Prior to the stem cell trials, nothing had worked to better her symptoms.
The treatment essentially involves an extensive combination of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants that are designed to reboot the immune system. It sees doctors harvest stem cells from the bone marrow of their patients, then purify and freeze the cells. Patients then undergo extensive chemotherapy before the preserved stem cells are returned to the patients.
The idea is to wipe clean and reset the immune system so it has no memory of attacking the central nervous system.
According to The Lancet, the procedure fully halted clinical relapses in all of the patients and stopped the development of any new brain lesions without any medication. Other stem cell transplants have resulted in positive short-term results in MS patients, but the symptoms always returned. What makes the Ottawa trial different is that, unlike previous trials what aimed to suppress the immune system, it wipes it out altogether.
While promising, the treatment is regarded as extremely high-risk, which places limitations on its widespread use. There are high mortality rates associated with the procedure; one patient out of the initial 24 involved in the clinical trial died from liver failure. It should also be highlighted that 30 per cent of the patients did see their symptoms worsen, likely because their MS was already too far along.
Only five per cent of MS patients are eligible for this type of treatment. But for those who are, it’s being called a ‘miracle treatment’ and The Lancet is urging more clinical trials.