- China - genetics - health - Stem cells
This week HEALTH looks at how stem cell therapy can make multiple sclerosis easier to live with and why a gene therapy that is used to treat cancer in China is not available elsewhere.
MS is an illness that has been around for decades; in fact it was first described in 1868. While the path the disease takes is now clear there is still no know cause or cure for it.
Multiple sclerosis attacks the central nervous system and develops mostly between the ages of 20 and 40. The way it affects sufferers varies, progressing rapidly at times. "Normally, our immune system protects us against foreign bodies, but with MS it turns against our own organs, and notably it attacks the myelin sheath, which coats the nerves and enables them to send impulses from the brain to other parts of the body," explains Doctor Catherine Lubetzki the President of the French MS Research Association.
The latest trial results from the UK give hope for the use of stem cell therapy to treat MS. All 6 MS sufferers in the program showed improvement. The conclusion mirrors an earlier test in the US, and so the idea grows that if it’s caught early enough stem cells can, well, stem it.
However these tests are only in the preliminary stages and have been carried out on a very small test group. Yet the option of stem cells offers hope not just of preventing or slowing down the progression of MS but perhaps also of repairing the damage done by the disease. Researchers in Paris are looking at how stem cells that occur naturally in our brains might be stimulated to repair the myelin sheath.
In the absence of these stem cell solutions the only treatment available today are immuno-supressors which block the symptoms but these have some serious side effects.
Next HEALTH turns from stem cell therapy to gene therapy. Gene therapy for cancer was approved in China back in 2003 and the treatment is now attracting cancer patients from around the world as China remains the only country in the world to approve gene therapy. A drug called ‘gendicine’ is injected directly into the tumour. According to doctors in Beijing, it then causes the cancer cells to self destruct.
Its critics question the safety and effectiveness of the drug. They say its clinical trials didn't meet international standards. The number of patients tested was too small. But some patients claim the drug has had a miraculous effect. For example, 27-year-old Zhou Chen had a tumour in his stomach, the size of a basket ball. A year later, having followed the gene therapy he reported that the tumour was gone.
Clinical trials using this method are currently underway in the US.