* Taken from https://www.mssociety.org.uk/ms-research/emerging-areas/stem-cells

Stem cells have the potential to help treat many different conditions, including MS. Stem cell treatment in MS is an active area of research and there is lots of exciting work underway to try and understand how these cells could be applied to the treatment of MS.

What are stem cells?

Most cells in the body, like skin or nerve cells, can only carry out very specific roles and are called specialised cells. Stem cells are different because they possess two unique features; the ability to make many copies of themselves (self-renewal), and to produce specialised cells such as skin cells, immune cells, or nerve cells (differentiation).

Pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) are sometimes called “true” or “embryo” stem cells because they can turn into almost any type of cell in the body. After embryonic development we stop producing these types of stem cells naturally, but maintain a variety of specialised stem cells.

In 2006 researchers showed that it was possible, in the lab at least, to turn adult cells back into pluripotent stem cells.

Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are a type of adult stem cell made in the bone marrow, which have the ability to produce the different cells found in the blood, including immune cells.

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are found in many parts of the body and are usually taken from bone marrow, skin and fat tissue. They can produce many different types of cells, including muscle and cartilage.

What stem cell treatments are being investigated for MS?

Because stem cells have the capacity for self-renewal and their unique ability to produce other types of cells, they have the potential to help treat MS.

Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (AHSCT)

AHSCT is being investigated as a treatment for severe immune-mediated conditions such as MS. The procedure involves removing the harmful immune cells that attack the brain and spinal cord in MS, and then uses a person’s own stem cells to effectively re-grow the immune system. The aim is that re-booting the immune system in this way will prevent further damage in the brain and spinal cord.

AHSCT therefore sits alongside existing Disease Modifying Therapies (DMTs) for relapsing forms of MS, but is unlikely to benefit people with progressive MSbecause haematopoietic stem cells do not have the ability to change into or regenerate permanently damaged nerves.

Although only trialled in a small number of people so far, AHSCT has shown some success, particularly in aggressive forms of relapsing MS.

Read more about AHSCT.

Mesenchymal Stem Cell Therapy (MSCT)

Mesenchymal stem cells are found in many parts of the body and are usually taken from bone marrow, skin and fat tissue. They can produce many different types of cells, including muscle and cartilage, and there is some evidence to suggest they might help promote remyelination and have a positive effect on the immune system.

Mesenchymal stem cell therapy is being investigated as a treatment for MS.  Research is currently at an early stage, and primarily focused on safety.

Read more about mesenchymal stem cell therapy.

Myelin repair

In MS it is the protective myelin layer that surrounds nerve fibres that is initially damaged by the immune system. Specialised stem cells in the brain can generate myelin-producing cells that are involved in myelin repair. Greater understanding of how this process is carried out in the body could help scientists to develop new treatments that can promote myelin repair.

Myelin loss in people with MS can leave nerve fibres exposed and they can become damaged. This can lead to the disabling symptoms associated with MS because these damaged nerves cannot be repaired or replaced by the body.

Read more about myelin repair.

Researchers hope stem cells might eventually be useful in replacing lost nerves, however at the moment this is a long way off and much more research needs to be carried out to explore this possibility.

What stem cell research are we supporting?

The MS Society is funding a number of research projects, some of which are co-funded with the UK Stem Cell Foundation. These include the STREAMS clinical trial of mesenychal stem cell therapy for people with MS. This trial is part of the international MESEMS programme.

Currently we are funding a mesenchymal stem cell project to investigate how MSCs interact with and affect the cells of the immune system in people with secondary progressive MS. Researchers will compare these interactions to those seen in people without MS. This project will help us to better understand the way in which mesenchymal stem cells work and how they may be beneficial as a treatment for people with MS.

We have also funded a project that looked at the impact that AHSCT has on the immune system. Researchers looked for differences in the immune system of people with MS before and after AHSCT. This project will help us to better understand how AHSCT may reduce the damage seen in MS.

More about stem cell research

Stem cells are a key tool in fundamental biomedical research, allowing researchers to replicate systems and different medical conditions in the lab.

For a quick overview of what stem cells are and how they could be beneficial for people with MS, watch our series of videos presented by leading stem cell researcher Professor Robin Franklin, from the MS Society Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair.