Scientists in the UK will test whether stem cells can be used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) in what is being described as a major new global clinical trial.
The team, which will involve experts from British institutions, will investigate if cells can slow, stop and even reverse damage to the brain and spinal cord caused by MS.
The results will advance medical knowledge “by years”, scientists say.
A spokesperson from the the MS Society told Channel 4 News that within a few hours of announcing the trial, researchers on the study had been “bombarded” with applications by MS sufferers to be involved.
“Stem cells hold tremendous potential as a future treatment option for people with MS” – Simon Gillespie, MS Society
The £10m trial, involving up to 200 patients around the world, is due to start later this year and will last between three and five years.
MS is a disabling neurological condition affecting the central nervous system and symptoms include problems with mobility, eyesight and bladder control, pain, extreme fatigue and muscle stiffness.
Paolo Muraro, lead researcher on the study based at Imperial College, London, said: “This is the first time that researchers from around the world have come together to test stem cell therapies in MS in such a large-scale clinical trial.
“A trial of this scale would be impossible to run in one location which is why this type of collaboration is essential if we are to make progress in this field.”
Researchers at trial sites in London and Edinburgh will harvest stem cells from the bone marrow of 13 trial participants, grow them in the laboratory and then re-inject them into the bloodstream.
The stem cells will make their way to the brain where it is thought they will repair the damage caused by MS – including targetting the “active” lesions, where damage is happening.
Scientists believe the new study will reduce the time taken to test whether stem cells could be a safe and effective treatment for people with MS by years, the MS Society said.
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the charity, said: “Stem cells hold tremendous potential as a future treatment option for people with MS.”
In recent years many people living with MS have been attracted to overseas stem cell clinics which claim to cure long-term conditions in exchange for large amounts of money.
However there is no proven stem cell therapy available for MS anywhere in the world.
It is hoped these new trials will eventually lead to a proven treatment and a reduction in the draw of overseas treatments.