Over the past 15 years a number of new treatments have proved successful in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. There a remains though a small group of patients who do not respond and who continue to have attacks despite treatment causing further permanent neurological disability in a cumulative fashion. This disability can take the form of muscle weakness, impairing walking ability, visual loss, impaired balance, bladder and bowel dysfunction and loss of higher intellectual faculties. Patients with aggressive forms of MS also have a shortened life span as a result of their disease.

Haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is a procedure originally used to treat patients with blood cancers. A high dose of chemotherapy is given which not only kills the malignant cells but also normal healthy bone marrow and blood cells. In order for the patient to survive these cells must be replaced by giving the patient a stem cell infusion following the chemotherapy . The stem cells replenish the bone marrow and a new blood and immune system then grows from it. 
Over the last 15 years, HSCT has become much safer. At the same time, numerous lines of evidence have emerged suggesting that a small number of patients with severe autoimmune diseases such as MS not controlled by other treatments could also respond to treatment with HSCT. This evidence came initially from patients with a co-existent auto-immune disease (AID) including multiple sclerosis (MS) who had chemotherapy for blood tumours. It was observed that not only did their cancers remain in prolonged remission after HSCT but so did the manifestations of their autoimmune disease. 

The procedure requires an initial dose of chemotherapy with a drug called cyclophosphamide to help stem cells to be collected via a vein in the arm. Subsequently the patient is admitted into hospital tohave high doses of chemotherapy that intensely suppresses the immune system. At this point the stem cells collected at the earlier time point are reinfused through the vein so they can re-grow a new immune system and protect the patient from the toxic effects of the chemotherapy. It takes about 14 days for the new stem cells to grow and then follow up is conducted carefully over several years to see if this method of immunosuppression and immune reconstitution prevents the reemergence of multiple sclerosis. The procedure is not without risk with the major complications of infection and death. Overall the risk of death where the procedure is done for an autoimmune disease is quoted at between 1-5 %.

The Neurology Unit at Austin Health has conducted trials in MS since 1996 and the Haematology Unit performs HSCT on a regular basis for patients with blood malignancies. The unit’s morbidity and mortality results for HSCT are on par with the world’s leading hospitals. We intend to explore therapy in patients with an aggressive form of MS and then follow them in a rigorous fashion over 5 years to gauge its effectiveness.

Condition: Multiple Sclerosis