An article published in today’s issue of Science claims that scientists are nearing stem cell therapies that might effectively treat myelin disorders.

After over three decades of research, scientists have grown a huge list of potential treatments involving stem cells, including cancer, spinal cord injury, heart damage, vision problems, diabetes, and neural defects, among others. Now, multiple sclerosis should be added to that list.

An article published in today’s issue of Science claims that scientists are nearing stem cell therapies that might effectively treat myelin disorders. Myelin disorders are a type of neurological disease that includes such serious conditions as multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, and white matter stroke, as well as certain types of dementia and a class of life-threatening childhood disorders known as pediatric leukodystrophies.

Stem cell biology has progressed in many ways over the last decade, and many potential opportunities for clinical translation have arisen,” said Dr. Steve Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., one of the University of Rochester Medical Center scientists who co-authored the article.

The cell therapies being developed as part of this stem cell biology research might be particularly helpful for MS, in that they could potentially repair the currently permanent damage that MS incurs on the central nervous system.

Stem cell research has recently been making advances that seem promising for treating myelin conditions. “We have developed a tremendous amount of information about these cells and how to produce them,” said Goldman of the research that has been carried out to date. “We understand the different cell populations, their genetic profiles, and how they behave in culture and in a variety of animal models. We also have better understanding of the disease target environments than ever before, and have the radiographic technologies to follow how patients do after transplantation.”

Although the resources for human clinical trials have not yet been secured, it seems to be only a matter of time before they happen.

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A cell called the oligodendrocyte is the common factor in myelin disorders. They are created by the glial progenitor cell, which is found in the central nervous system and also creates the oligodendrocyte’s sister cell, known as the astrocyte. Both oligodendrocytes and astrocytes are important for the proper function of the central nervous system.

Myelin is a fatty substance that allows the nerve cells to transmit signals to various areas of the body. Oligodendrocytes produce myelin, and when myelin-producing cells are damaged, it can weaken or eliminate important nerve signals. Damage to myelin-producing cells can come from conditions like MS or injury to the spinal cord.

The glial progenitor cell and the cells that it produces—namely, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes—have been shown to be relatively easy to transplant and manipulate in stem cell studies of animals. When transplanted, the cells are found to repair damaged parts of the nervous system. These promising results could be applicable to conditions that damage the myelin in humans.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners have helped scientists better be able to study damage to the central nervous system resulting from myelin disorders. Additionally, scientists have made major breakthroughs in being able to coax stem cells into producing oligodendrocytes and astrocytes.

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The advances made by the studies discussed in this review mean that human studies for myelin disorders should be happening in the near future, once resources are available to do so.

“Transplantation of human glial progenitor cells is on the near horizon for a variety of disease of myelin,” said Goldman in an interview with Healthline. “We’re at the threshold of being able to use this strategy—these types of cells—of transplanting them into patients with MS and other conditions.”

As Goldman points out, MS is a condition for which anti-inflammatory stabilizing treatments are available, but there are no treatments that reverse the damage done by the condition. These stem cell therapies, if successful, could actually repair damage incurred to the central nervous system by the disease. “We have good strategies for stabilizing [MS], but no strategies for repairing the damage already done,” said Goldman. “At this point, the animal models have been so substantially investigated and with success that we’re optimistic about there being a near-immediate term availability for human trials.”

While there has been a lot of research on the use of stem cells to treat various health issues, there have not been many studies specific to multiple sclerosis. One study, published in 2012inNature Neuroscience, found that a type of stem cell called “mesenchymal stem cells” could improve the ability of the body to repair damaged myelin, and to moderate the body’s immune response.

Find out how to recognize potential warning signs of MS.