Stem Cells May Heal Multiple Sclerosis Damage

Stem cells might be able to reverse damage caused by multiple sclerosis (search), say Italian researchers.

The technique is a long way off from human use, but early tests on mice were encouraging. If the approach works out, it could help the 2.5 million people worldwide who have MS, including about 400,000 Americans.

MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system that attacks myelin (search), a protective sheath surrounding nerve cells. MS patients can experience muscle weakness and difficulty with strength, vision, and balance. The worst cases result in paralysis.

The new study used stem cells (search) to offset the ravages of multiple sclerosis. The stem cells weren’t the controversial kind taken from embryos. Instead, they were taken from adult nerve tissue called neural stem cells.

Guiseppe Scotti, MD, and colleagues focused on neural stem cells because "stem cells have the potential to replace the function of damaged nerve cells,” says Scotti in a news release.

Neural stem cells can start a chain reaction that leads to myelin production, explains Scotti. He is a professor and chairman of neuroradiology at Italy’s University and Scientific Institute San Raffaele, and he also serves as dean of the medical school at Milan’s University Vita-Salute San Raffaele.

Scotti’s team injected neural stem cells into adult mice with an MS-like disease. The injected stem cells were monitored for 30 days using MRI brain imaging (search).

The stem cells wasted no time. Only one day after the injection, they had positioned themselves near damaged brain regions. As myelin production ramped up, the mice’s symptoms eased.

All six mice that got the neural stem cell injection had “almost complete recovery” from the disease. Untreated mice weren’t so fortunate. Their disease and disability progressed.

Lots of work remains to be done on the technique, including trying it with human stem cells. “We have great hopes, but we do not yet know the possible side effects,” Scotti cautions in the news release.

The study had another favorable outcome. It showed the benefit of tracking transplanted neural stem cells, which could help in future animal and human trials, say the researchers.

They presented their findings in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Radiological Society of North America 90th Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting, Chicago, Nov. 28-Dec. 3, 2004. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Topic Overview.” News release, Radiological Society of North America.