Australian media have reported the case of Ben Leahy, a 20 year old man from Canberra, who was diagnosed with MS in 2008, followed by a rapidly progressive course resulting in him being in a wheelchair and even in Intensive Care for a period with trouble breathing. Because the disease was so rapidly progressive and his future was so bleak, his treating neurologist, Dr Colin Andrews, decided to try a treatment usually reserved for people with diseases such as acute leukaemia.
Although reported as "stem cell therapy", this is not what is usually meant by that term. It was in fact bone marrow transplantation. Ben had bone marrow cells taken, then the immune-cell producing stem cells purified from that. His own bone marrow was then destroyed with chemotherapy, to destroy the cells with a memory of attacking his nervous system, and the stem cells injected back in in their place. The hope was that the new stem cell derived immune cells would not have the memory of attacking nervous tissue.
The operation was a great success, and Ben was rapidly up and about, walking, with only a bit of residual weakness in one leg, and some visual disturbance from the old lesions. It should be noted that the procedure is very risky, indeed potentially fatal, and that is why it is reserved for those with very severe, rapidly progressive disease, whose outlook would otherwise be grim.
In 2005, Italian scientists reported the procedure in a series of 21 patients with very good results (Capello E, Saccardi R, Murialdo A, et al. Intense immunosuppression followed by autologous stem cell transplantation in severe multiple sclerosis. Neurol Sci 2005; 26:s200–s203). As techniques of bone marrow transplantation continue to improve, the fatality rate from the procedure continues to fall. Dr Andrews from Canberra quotes a figure of 1% currently, down from 8% in the past. This is by no means a procedure for everyone with MS, but it is heartening to know that there are options available for even the most severe cases.