Are cellular treatments for MS coming of age?

26 March, 2018

Cell-based therapies are the new research frontier for many different diseases from cancer to autoimmune diseases and beyond.

While there has been great hope and hype for the regenerative potential of stem cells, researchers are now exploring the role that stem cells and other cells can play in changing the environment inside the body, for example to carry a medical cargo, target a specific troublesome cell type, or support the survival and growth of cells already present in the body.

Excitingly, the new technologies being developed for one disease can often be adapted and adjusted for other diseases. In particular, scientists are now turning to these technologies to tackle progressive forms of MS.

One such cell technology, initially developed to target certain cancers caused by the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) is being tested in progressive MS in research funded by MS Research Australia in partnership with the MS Society of Queensland.

EBV is thought to play a role in driving MS progression. Researchers at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research are trialling this method to remove a person’s own immune cells, retrain them to enhance their EBV-fighting skills and then re-introduce them into the body like ‘heat-seeking missiles’ to remove EBV infected cells.

This research, while showing promise, is still in the early stages of testing the safety of the treatment in people with primary and secondary progressive MS. A biotechnology company is now also trialling an ‘off-the-shelf’ version of this treatment using engineered T cells which could provide a more uniform treatment regime without the complex step of growing the patient’s own cells in the laboratory.

Another experimental cell therapy being trialled in progressive MS internationally is mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). MSCs are found in bone marrow and fat tissues. As stem cells, they have the potential to turn into a range of cell types including brain cells. However, rather than physically re-growing tissue, it has become clear that the therapeutic potential of MSCs lies in the chemicals they secrete. These chemicals can calm the immune system and may create an environment that is more supportive for self-repair.

‘Excitingly, the new technologies being developed for one disease can often be adapted and adjusted for other diseases.’

The media has recently covered a trial of MSCs in progressive MS underway at the Hadassah Medical Center, Israel. An interview with Hadassah’s Professor Ben-Hur is available on our YouTube channel. Early indications suggest that MSCs are safe and may slow MS progression. Further small trials of MSCs are also ongoing which will pool their results to obtain a more statistically powerful result.

As stem cells have the natural ability to multiply continually, one of the major obstacles with cell-based therapies is controlling the growth of the cells once they are transplanted into a person. Dr Natalie Payne, a MS Research Australia-funded scientist is investigating ways to make cellular therapies safer by engineering failsafe mechanisms into the genes of the cells to control their growth.

Autologous hematopoietic stem cell therapy (AHSCT) is another treatment that uses chemotherapy to wipe out the immune cells and then uses hematopoietic stem cells to rebuild the immune system. As such AHSCT is primarily an immunosuppressive chemotherapy treatment for relapsing MS, rather than a cellular therapy, but is encouraging for some people with active relapsing MS. More information on AHSCT can be found here.

It is exciting to see all of this research into cell therapies for progressive MS going on in Australia and around the world. Together, we hope it will lead to fast and safe progress towards further cell-based clinical trials.

For more information on clinical trials of cell-based therapies and other MS trials please visit

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