An experimental treatment offered at a clinic in Israel may alleviate multiple sclerosis symptoms, even in patients who have an untreatable form of the disease.

Lead researcher Prof. Dimitrios Karussis of Hadassah Medical Center and his colleagues at the Tel Aviv Medical Center have pioneered a procedure whereby they remove a patient's own mesenchymal stem cells - cells in our bone marrow that can turn into heart tissue, bone, cartilage and nerve cells - grow them into large quantities in a laboratory and inject them back into the patient.

Patients who have multiple sclerosis find their immune systems attacking nerve cells, which leads to a range of symptoms from fatigue to severe disability, blindness and even paralysis.

Early data from about 25 patients suggests that the mesenchymal stem cell treatment can repair existing damage to the nerve cells, Dr. Shimon Slavin of the Tel Aviv Medical Center told CTV News.

"The secret is to do the treatment of choice in the early stages of the disease before irreversible changes occur," Slavin said. Researchers are also testing the technique on a number of other neurodegenerative diseases.

Multiple sclerosis affects between 55,000 and 75,000 Canadians and is often diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40, according to the MS Society of Canada.

The disease is particularly common in countries that are further away from the equator.

Drug treatments can alleviate symptoms in some patients. However, those medications do not work in every patient.

Patients who have been treated by the Israeli team have not experienced any serious side effects. However, some patients have responded better than others.

Canadian Louise Zylstra is a golf pro who was diagnosed with rapidly progressive MS in 2007.

By early this year she was not only unable to play an 18-hole golf game, but she could barely walk 50 yards.

"Her course is primary progressive and right now we have no sure treatments for primary progressive disease," neurologist Dr. Mark Freedman, an MS specialist at Ottawa Hospital, told CTV News.

Primary progressive MS accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of cases and does not often follow a predictable disease pattern, Freedman said.

Freedman told Zylstra that within two years she would likely end up in a wheelchair.

"It was a disaster," Zylstra told CTV News. "When you think, I might not play golf again and that's what you do, it's like, what am I going to do?"

Eight months after travelling to Israel for the treatment, Louise is back on the golf course.

"It's night and day," Zylstra said. "It's a complete 180 from where I was."

Given the progressive nature of Zylstra's MS, such a recovery would have been highly unlikely without the treatment, Freedman said.

"She's recovered substantial function very quickly," Freedman said. "She's out golfing, and out-golfing most people, which is quite incredible."

Larger, more objective studies must be done to accurately measure the treatment's effectiveness, Slavin said.

The team must also further study the action the mesenchymal cells have on preventing the immune system from attacking nerve cells.

The findings also offer hope that the treatment may help patients with ALS and spinal cord injuries, and even to rejuvenate aging or damaged organs.

Freedman hopes to organize a meeting of experts to plan how to accelerate research and bring the treatment to Canada.

"Because it offers our patients promise and if it's going to give us some insight on how we can repair the system, from the standpoint of recovery, I think it's absolute that we move forward with this kind of a program," Freedman said.

For more information, contact:

  • The International Center for Cell Therapy & Cancer (ICTC), Tel Aviv Medical Center, Tel Aviv, Israel. (+972-3-697-4010 phone; +972-3-697 4011 fax)

With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and senior producer Elizabeth St. Philip