A pioneering new stem cell treatment is reversing and then halting the potentially crippling effects of multiple sclerosis.
Patients embarking on a ground-breaking trial of the new treatment have found they can walk again and that the disease even appears to be stopped in its tracks.
“I started seeing changes within days of the stem cells being put in. It was a miracle”
Patient Holly Drewry
Holly Drewry, 25, from Sheffield, who was wheelchair bound after the birth of her daughter Isla, now two.
But Miss Drewry claims the new treatment has transformed her life.
She told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “I couldn’t walk steadily. I couldn’t trust myself holding her (Isla) in case I fell. Being a new mum I wanted to do it all properly but my MS was stopping me from doing it.
“It is scary because you think, when is it going to end?”
The treatment is being carried out at Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield and Kings College Hospital, London and involves use a high dose of chemotherapy to knock out the immune system before rebuilding it with stem cells taken from the patient’s own blood.
Miss Drewry had the treatment in Sheffield. She said: “I started seeing changes within days of the stem cells being put in.
“I walked out of the hospital. I walked into my house and hugged Isla. I cried and cried. It was a bit overwhelming. It was a miracle.”
Her treatment has now been reviewed and her condition found to have been dramatically halted. She will need to be monitored for years but the hope is that her transplant will be a permanent fix.
She is now planning to get married.
For other patients, the results have been equally dramatic. Steven Storey was a marathon runner and triathlete before he was struck down with the disease and left completely paralysed: “I couldn’t flicker a muscle,” he said.
But within nine days of the treatment he could move his toe and after 10 months managed a mile-long swim in the Lake District. He has also managed to ride a bike and walk again.
“It was great. I felt I was back,” he said.
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Mr Storey celebrated his first transplant birthday with his daughters. His treatment has been reviewed and, like Miss Drewry, there was no evidence of active disease.
The treatment – which effectively ‘reboots’ the immune systems - is the first to reverse the symptoms of MS, which has no cure, and affects around 100,000 people in Britain.
Stem cells are so effective because they can become any cell in the body based on their environment.
"Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous"
Professor Basil Sharrack
Although it is unclear what causes MS, some doctors believe that it is the immune system itself which attacks the brain and spinal cord, leading to inflammation and pain, disability and in severe cases, death.
Professor Basil Sharrack, a consultant neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Since we started treating patients three years ago, some of the results we have seen have been miraculous.
"This is not a word I would use lightly, but we have seen profound neurological improvements."
During the treatment, the patient's stem cells are harvested and stored. Then doctors use aggressive drugs which are usually given to cancer patients to completely destroy the immune system.
The harvested stem cells are then infused back into the body where they start to grow new red and white blood cells within just two weeks.