Stem cell therapy is not cleared for treating multiple sclerosis (MS). But this experimental therapy through clinical trials may significantly reduce relapses and slow disease progression in some people with the condition.

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Stem cell therapy is still considered experimental, but it shows great promise in some people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

This article discusses the research and potential benefits, risks, and costs of using stem cell therapy to treat MS.

In MS, immune system cells mistakenly attack myelin. With stem cell treatment, doctors use chemotherapy to destroy these existing immune cells. Then, they introduce the new stem cells, which are not primed to attack myelin. This appears to slow or stop disease progression.

For now, stem cell therapy is most likely to help people who have active inflammation or frequent relapses. It hasn’t yet been shown to repair serious damage or help those who already have a high level of disability.

Terms at a glance

MS is an immune-mediated disease involving demyelination in the central nervous system. Symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • balance and coordination issues
  • vision problems

Treatment can involve disease-modifying therapy (DMT) and symptom management.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells. They’re able to develop into any kind of cell. Scientists can manipulate stem cells into specialized cells. Once implanted, they can replace or help repair damaged cells. Stem cell therapy may reset the immune system in people with MS.

Hematopoietic stem cells can develop into all types of blood cells within the blood and immune system. Autologous means that the therapy uses your own stem cells rather than donor cells.

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Yes, there are different types of stem cell therapies that show promise.

Aside from hematopoietic stem cells that can develop into all types of blood cells, there’s also mesenchymal stem cells. These are are adult stem cells found in several places in the body, including in the bone marrow, skin and fat tissue.

Smaller clinical trials for more than a decade have explored the safety and feasibility of these particular stem cells approaches, and found it’s beneficial for people with MS.

Researchers are looking into many types of stem cells that might help people with MS.

But most studies focus on autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (aHSCT).

  • A 2017 analysis looked at 15 aHSCT trials involving people with MS. Two years after therapy, 83% of participants had no evidence of disease activity. At 5 years, 67% still had no evidence of disease activity.
  • A 2021 review article found that aHSCT may benefit people with relapsing and active forms of MS. Study authors cited the need for larger, more rigorous trials to compare the benefits of stem cell therapy versus the latest DMTs.
  • A 2020 clinical trial involved mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy in 48 people with progressive MS. Doctors treated some intrathecally (IT), which means administering it into the spinal cord. They treated others intravenously (IV). During a 1-year follow-up, 58.6% of the MSC-IT group and 40.6% of the MSC-IV group exhibited no evidence of disease activity. This compared with 9.7% in a placebo group.

Stem cell therapy may be more effective at increasing the time it takes for MS to progress, compared with standard MS treatments. However, the higher efficacy treatments (such as Ocrevus, Alemtuzumab) were not included in that research analysis.

The therapy known as aHSCT is a one-time treatment, though the process has many steps. It’s an experimental treatment, so details vary depending on the treatment center. Here are the basics:

  • Preparation: You’ll take medication that stimulates production of blood-producing stem cells. Another medication will help move them from bone marrow into the bloodstream. Your doctor will harvest the new stem cells from your blood and freeze them. This takes from 5 to 15 days.
  • Chemotherapy: In the hospital, you’ll get intensive chemotherapy to destroy existing immune cells.
  • Transplant: Your doctor will introduce the stem cells into a vein.
  • Immune system rebuild: Your body will start producing new white blood cells. It takes about 3 to 6 months for the immune system to rebuild itself.

Your hospital stay may last 3 weeks or so. You’ll also need follow-up visits for several years. This includes medical evaluations, MRIs, and blood tests.

Who is eligible for stem therapy if you have MS?

People who are most likely to benefit from stem cell therapy are people who:

  • have relapsing MS
  • are under 45 years old
  • can get around independently
  • have had MS for less than 10 years
  • despite the use of DMTs, have had at least two clinical relapses in the previous year, with evidence of disease activity on MRI

If you’re considering stem cell therapy for MS, it’s best to speak with an MS specialist first. They can help sort out safety considerations and point you toward an accredited location.

Before you can move forward, you’ll need a series of tests to ensure that you’re in good general health. This may include:

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It’s generally considered safe, but there are side effects and risks.

Chemotherapy dampens the immune system, which raises the chances of serious infections and other health problems. Potential complications of stem cell therapy include:

A 2019 review article discusses the improvement in safety of aHSCT through the years. The rate of transplant-related mortality was 7.3% between 1995 and 2000. It fell to 0.7% between 2008 and 2016 and more recently to 0.2%.

To date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved stem cell therapy for treatment of MS. The agency cautions that some countries don’t require regulatory review of clinical studies. That makes it difficult to know if an experimental stem cell treatment is safe.

A 2020 research article put the cost of aHSCT at around $150,000.

However, other research points to a cost between $7,000 and $10,000 per treatment.

As these therapies aren’t yet approved by the FDA, they may not be covered by insurance. That can mean even the typically fluctuating copays and deductibles may not even apply.

The aim of stem cell therapy is to reboot the immune system and prevent MS attacks.

Though it shows much promise and is available through clinical trials, it’s not FDA-approved to treat MS.

If you’re interested in stem cell therapy, an MS specialist can answer your questions and provide guidance. You’ll want to make sure you’re a good candidate and are dealing with an accredited institution.