Stem Cell Transplants Show Promise for Multiple Sclerosis Patients

Recent research has indicated a significant breakthrough in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating neurological disorder. The study provides robust evidence that stem cell transplants may not only halt the progression of MS for many patients but also reverse existing disabilities in some cases.

The study observed 174 MS patients who underwent stem cell transplants using cells extracted from their own blood. A remarkable two-thirds of these participants showed no evidence of disease activity over a decade, encompassing the absence of symptom relapses, no further disability, and no new brain damage. Impressively, over half of the patients who had previously developed disabilities experienced improvements post-procedure.

This groundbreaking research was conducted at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden, with Dr. Joachim Burman, a neurologist at the institution, being a co-author. Dr. Burman stated, “We do know that this treatment works and it can be performed safely.”

MS affects the nervous system, triggered by a misguided immune system assault on nerve fibers in both the spine and brain. This results in a range of symptoms, including vision disturbances, muscle weakness, numbness, and challenges with coordination and balance. The majority of MS patients initially display the relapsing-remitting form, where symptoms intensify and then ease. Unfortunately, most individuals transition to a more aggressive form, leading to escalating disabilities.

The treatment technique involves extracting stem cells from the patient’s blood, followed by powerful chemotherapy drugs to suppress the existing immune system. The harvested stem cells are then reintroduced into the patient, enabling the immune system to reconstruct itself over time.

Safety is a prime consideration with stem cell transplants. Younger patients generally respond better to the treatment. The procedure is especially beneficial for individuals with highly active MS, which includes those experiencing flare-ups in spite of medication.

The National MS Society issued guidelines in 2020 regarding suitable candidates for stem cell transplants. Ideal candidates are under 50 years of age, diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS for less than a decade, and continue to show symptom flare-ups or new brain lesions despite optimal medication.

However, the procedure does come with its challenges. It necessitates a hospital stay and temporarily increases susceptibility to infections. Post-procedure, the risk of infection is at its peak but decreases substantially after roughly 10 days. Patients can generally return to work after three months.

In the study, the median age of participants was 31, and they were treated at one of seven Swedish transplant centers as far back as 2004. After five years, 73% displayed no disease signs, with 65% maintaining this status after ten years. Dr. Burman noted that while some theorize that chemotherapy might reduce brain inflammation, leading to the reversal of some disabilities, this hypothesis remains unconfirmed.

For many MS patients, this treatment could represent a beacon of hope, offering a chance at a life without the shadow of progressive disability.


Silfverberg T, Zjukovskaja C, Ljungman P, et al

Haematopoietic stem cell transplantation for treatment of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in Sweden: an observational cohort study

Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry Published Online First: 25 September 2023. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2023-331864