Stem cell therapy for mutiple sclerosis: trials and tribulations

8 May 2010

The first, small-scale clinical trials of stem cells as a treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) have reportedly shown promising results (see BBC news report). Six patients were injected with stem cells taken from their own bone marrow. Study leader Prof Neil Scolding of the University of Bristol said: "We didn't see patients throwing away their wheelchairs, throwing away their walking sticks” – but there were promising signs that the treatment increased nerve function and could have helped to stabilise the disease, preventing worsening of symptoms. The team hope to move on to larger clinical trials soon.
These results contrast markedly with news last month from the UK General Medical Council, which found Dutch doctor Robert Trossel guilty of exploiting vulnerable MS patients by sending them from his London practice to the Netherlands for unproven stem cell treatments. The GMC found that these were ‘unjustified by the scientific or clinical medical evidence’ and also that Trossel was not an expert either in neurology or stem cell therapeutics [Dyer C. BMJ. 2010 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c2009].
Comment: Unfortunately, premature, inappropriate (and in some cases, unscrupulous) application of novel biomedical treatments can result in disappointment and widespread scepticism about what may ultimately prove to be transformational new clinical tools. The balance between ethical research to develop and test innovations, and regulation to protect the public, is sometimes a delicate one. Here, however, both ends of the scale are shown in a good light - reporting of a promising trial without excessive claims of miracle cures or similar, and punitive action by a regulator against unprofessional behaviour.

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