A world-first treatment that could reverse multiple sclerosis is being set up on the NHS.
Stem cell transplants that restart the malfunctioning immune system appear to halt and overturn the illness.
It may revolutionise treatment for the country’s most common cause of severe disability in young adults.
MS affects 100,000 Brits, which can lead to life in a wheelchair.
Chief trial investigator Prof John Snowden said the study may also provide insights into immune system abnormalities that cause the disease.
He said: “Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation has been shown to be highly effective in
stabilising, and even reversing disability, in certain patients with multiple sclerosis.”
In MS, the immune system attacks the nerves, causing inflammation that affects the brain and spinal cord.
Until recently, treatment has mainly used drugs that reduce the worst symptoms but do not halt the disease.
AHSCT involves harvesting the patients’ blood and bone marrow stem cells before stripping the body’s immune system using chemotherapy.
Stem cells are used to repopulate the bone marrow to make new cells, which “reboots” the immune system.
The pilot trial will run initially in Sheffield and London but will create jobs and train staff at 19 NHS units.
It could soon offer “prolonged remission” for patients in Liverpool, Salford in Greater Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Cardiff.
It comes after a trial of AHSCT in 2016 showed miraculous results.
Of 55 patients who got this treatment, 6% relapsed after three years.
But of 55 patients given standard MS drugs, 60% suffered a relapse.
Advances in treatments have been rapid since that trial.
Alemtuzumab, ocrelizumab, ofatumumab and cladribine have shown in studies they can reduce disease.
The £2.3million StarMS pilot will start with 200 participants and test AHSCT against these other drugs.
Rollout will be prepared for rapid expansion if approved by regulators.
Lead trial neurologist Prof Basil Sharrack, from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Currently, there is no cure for multiple sclerosis but huge advances have been made in recent years.
“This could also provide us with the solid evidence we need to demonstrate AHSCT can be offered as a first-line treatment for those with the aggressive form of the condition.”
‘Journey of deterioration’
Colette Edwards, 53, a mother of two from Rotherham, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011 after suffering with vision, coordination problems and numbness in her left hand.
The devastating diagnosis put her life and career as an occupational therapist and on hold and she was unable to do simple things like walking her dog, lifting the kettle or using a hairdryer.
Over the next five years Colette tried various treatments for her multiple sclerosis, which is the aggressive ‘relapsing-remitting’ type.
Nothing would abate the worsening relapses and damaging spasms that would impair her walking and often cause her to collapse when getting out of bed.
Keeping her job proved challenging as she became unable to drive and struggled to write and type.
She said: “I knew I was going down a journey of deterioration. In my mind I was always thinking ‘Would I need a scooter or a wheelchair for work?’ and ‘How would I manage in the future as my condition deteriorated?’.”
In April 2016 Colette’s life was transformed by an autologous stem cell transplant at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust as part of the landmark MIST trial.
Six years on, Colette remains relapse-free and has fulfilled her dream to move to the countryside with her new husband Mark.
She said: “Thankfully I have not experienced any relapses since HSCT treatment, which continues to give me security and assurance that my condition is in a state of prolonged remission.
“My husband and I are now married, and we have fulfilled our dream of living in the countryside having moved to a village in West Yorkshire in 2020.
“I started doing a PhD in 2018, and I am able to do all the things I wanted to do with my family. I can now contemplate a future without progressing disability.
“I no longer live with the anxiety of waiting for the next episode of MS to take my independence away.”