Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system – the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerves. MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibers, called myelin. Damage to myelin interferes with messages between the brain and other parts of the body.
MS destroys myelin in multiple areas of the nervous system, leaving scar tissue called sclerosis. These damaged areas are also known as plaques or lesions. Sometimes the nerve fiber itself is damaged or broken.
Symptoms of MS vary from person to person and from time to time in the same person. For example, one person may experience abnormal fatigue, while another might have severe vision problems. A person with MS could have loss of balance and muscle coordination making walking difficult; another person with MS could have slurred speech, tremors, stiffness and bladder problems. For some people, MS is characterized by periods of relapse and remission, while for others symptoms get progressively worse over time.
At present, there are several drug treatments that slow the disease and reduce symptoms of MS – but there is still no cure.
Human and Social Costs
MS is one of the most common diseases of the central nervous system. About 400,000 Americans have MS and every week about 200 people are diagnosed. Worldwide, MS may affect 2.5 million individuals.
Anyone may develop MS, but there are some patterns. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and MS is approximately twice as common in women as in men.
Recent studies sponsored by the National MS Society show that annual direct and indirect costs of the disease for each affected individual averages $44,000 – and the total cost can exceed $2.6 million over an individual’s lifetime. For all people with MS in the U.S., the annual cost exceeds $13 billion.
Other human costs associated with MS are the social, vocational and emotional complications associated with the primary and secondary symptoms. The diagnosis of a chronic illness can be damaging to self-esteem and self-image. A person who becomes unable to walk or drive may lose his or her livelihood. The strain of dealing with a chronic neurological illness may disrupt personal relationships. In addition, people with MS frequently experience mood swings and depression as primary, secondary or tertiary symptoms of the disease.
The Potential for Stem Cell Cures
More than 50 years of research on adult stem cells, taken from adult tissues, has produced such lifesaving treatments as bone marrow transplants for leukemia patients. And, adult stem cells are likely to provide additional cures for some diseases in the years ahead.
However, the new frontier in stem cell research involves early, or “embryonic,” stem cells (ES cells). Unlike adult stem cells, ES cells have the potential to turn into and regenerate any type of cell or tissue in the human body. As a result, ES cells could provide cures for many currently incurable or common diseases and injuries that cannot be cured with adult stem cells, or more effective treatments than adult stem cells may provide.
Recent research with animals suggests that ES cell transplants could someday be used to repair and replace nerve cells that are damaged by neurological diseases, such as MS, Parkinson’s and ALS.
There are two basic sources of ES cells for such potential therapies. One source is the leftover embryos at fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded and destroyed. ES cells can also be produced with Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), a process that uses a patient’s own cells and an unfertilized human egg to make ES cells. SCNT has the added advantage of producing ES cells that will automatically match the patient’s genetic makeup. As a result, SCNT avoids the need to find a genetically matching donor and the problem of immune system rejection, two limitations associated with donated adult and ES cells.
SCNT has also given medical researchers a method of growing cells that have the defects associated with a disease in a laboratory setting. This use of SCNT provides new ways to study how a disease like MS progresses at the cellular level and to test the effectiveness of new drugs or other treatments that may cure or slow the progress of the disease.
The consensus of the medical and patient community is that all types of stem cell research should be pursued in the effort to find cures for diseases like MS, and that ES cells can play an important role in this effort.
That’s why ES cell research is strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of medical researchers; medical organizations like the American Medical Association, American Academy of Neurology and American Neurological Association; and disease and patient advocacy groups like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Links to More Information:
“Inside MS: The Stem Cell Story.”
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Founder of Multiple Sclerosis Research Foundation expresses support for SCNT
American Academy of Neurology and American Neurological Association statement supporting SCNT and other forms of stem cell research
“Waisman researchers grow critical nerve cells.”
“Scientists Switch Stem Cells into Neurons.”
“Autoimmune Diseases and the Promise of Stem Cell-Based Therapies”
The National Institutes of Health
Article about therapeutic cloning (SCNT) and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and MS
The Lupus Site
Interview with stem cell expert Dr. Irving Weissman, Director of the Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine