Fifty million Americans are living with an autoimmune disorder, making them one of the leading causes of chronic illness in the country. There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases, and most have no cure—management is key. But that could soon change, as a stem cell procedure in clinical trials may be the key to keeping these diseases in remission.
Celine Dion, for instance, was diagnosed with stiff-person syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes uncontrollable spasms. Stiff-person syndrome joins a long list of incurable, debilitating autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis.
“I had this numbness that was going down the inside of my legs, and I had a little bit of numbness in my hands,” said Kathy Miska, a woman with MS.
Miska has been living with MS for more than 20 years. The disease has progressed and left her in a wheelchair.
“It’s hard,” Miska said. “It feels like you’re giving up a little bit of your independence.”
As with many autoimmune diseases, they get worse over time. And, over time, medications and therapies sometimes stop working.
Autologous stem cell transplants may be a last resort.
“What we try and do is suppress the immune response,” said Dr. Richard Nash with the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute.
First, patients receive high-dose chemotherapy to wipe out the immune system. Then, blood stem cells are taken from the patient or a donor, processed and then put back into the patient.
“There’s been a number of studies showing that transplants for MS can be effective,” Nash said.
Seventy percent of MS patients can stay in remission for five years. It’s also been shown up to 70% of patients with systemic sclerosis remain in remission 10 years after transplantation.
“We’re having such a profound effect on the immune system,” Nash said.
That, and a profound effect on the lives of people living with autoimmune diseases.
Stem cell transplantation is still considered an experimental treatment for autoimmune disorders. Early results have been promising, but more clinical trials need to be done.