Need to Know: What Are Stem Cells?

Need to Know: What Are Stem Cells?

Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forumThis week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “Has anyone had the stem cell procedure?” from Jan. 11.

You’ve no doubt heard about stem cell therapy. It is being used for everything from bone marrow transplants to treating spinal cord injuries and arthritis. MS is another condition that could benefit from the therapeutic use of these specialty cells.

What exactly are stem cells?

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) describes stem cells as those that can differentiate, or develop, into the many types of specialized cells in our bodies.

The larger question looms: How can stem cells be used to treat MS?

Stem cell types

To better understand stem cell therapy for treating MS, you first need to know about the different kinds of stem cells. Of the four categories described on the website A Closer Look at Stem Cells, two are pertinent to current MS research:

  • Tissue-specific stem cells: These are more specialized, adult stem cells that generate new cells for the tissues or organs in which they are found. Of special interest are the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which are in the bone marrow and assist in generating red and white blood cells and platelets.
  • Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs): These cells dwell in bone marrow and can generate fat, cartilage, and bone cells. However, MSCs are still mysterious — their generative functions remain unclear. Indeed, some scientists don’t think they’re stem cells at all. This makes them the subject of intense study. Despite disagreements about what they are, MSCs are still thought to have potentially valuable immunomodulatory properties.

Stem cell therapies

The Mayo Clinic describes stem cell therapy as “regenerative medicine” that “promotes the repair response of diseased, dysfunctional or injured tissue.”

Stem cell therapies promise many opportunities for research:

  • Studying stem cells in the lab can help researchers better understand how diseases and conditions develop;
  • Healthy cells can be generated from stem cells to replace diseased ones;
  • The safety and effectiveness of new medications can be tested on stem cells developed for this purpose.

The NMSS states, “In light of the urgent need for more effective treatments for MS, particularly for those with more progressive forms of the disease, we believe that the potential of all types of cell therapies must be explored.”

MS research focuses on two main stem cell therapies.

Hematopoietic stem cell therapy (HSCT)

This approach is the most common and familiar to people with MS.

HSCT involves banking healthy blood cells (HSCs) from one’s bone marrow. Chemotherapy is then used to kill the remaining immune cells. Afterward, the banked HSCs are reinfused into the body, where they “reset” the immune system.

Recent preliminary research published on JAMA Network (NCT00273364) states that HSCT was more effective than disease-modifying therapies in treating “highly active” relapsing-remitting MS.

Mesenchymal stem cell therapy (MSCT)

Only recently has MSCT advanced from animal model research to clinical trials in humans.

For the past two decades, researchers studied mice with a version of MS known as EAE. MSCs were collected from their blood and fatty tissues, then infused by a variety of pathways and observed. Multiple studies of MSCT in mice have shown improvements in EAE symptoms, as well as reduced disease activity. However, other studies have reported worsening symptoms and possible tumor development.

Human clinical trials in very small populations started in 2007. Research published in 2014 found intravenous infusions of MSCs from bone marrow to be safe and potentially helpful in reducing MS-related inflammation. Still, finding the optimal infusion protocol and identifying the mechanisms that work in MSCT remain challenging.

New therapies under development include those using neuronal stem cells, human embryonic stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells; these are considered very early and less developed than HSCT and MSCT.

Moving forward

The NMSS cautions that “although cell-based therapy has generated a great deal of interest and holds promise, the field is in its infancy and much more research is needed before cell-based therapies become an MS treatment option.”

Despite stem cell therapy clinics popping up across America, the United States hasn’t approved stem cell treatments specifically for MS. Anyone who wants this kind of therapy should participate in clinical research.

Are you considering a stem cell therapy approach for your MS? Have you undergone such a treatment protocol? Post your insights in the comments below or at the original “Has anyone had the stem cell procedure?” forum entry.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


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  1. Kevin Keplinger says:

    WOW!! So much misinformation about HSCT that I wonder if this misinformation isn’t being promoted on purpose!!! This article doesn’t even have the name of HSCT correct!! It isn’t Hematopoietic Stem Cell Therapy!!! It’s Hematopietic Stem Cell Transplant!!!! HSCT isn’t a “Stem Cell” therapy, it’s a chemo therapy based procedure that uses HSC’s to restart the immune system after the chemo!! It’s the chemo that’s the active or important part of the treatment, not the stem cells!! Why don’t you interview someone that actually knows what they are talking about, because the NMSS clearly doesn’t in my opinion!! They have constantly resisted HSCT & won’t even hardly mention it & when confronted about it will only say “It’s on our web site”!! I have a question for you & the NMSS, why are so many patients having to leave the country to get treated when the procedure could be done here?? Here’s another question, why have other country’s like Russia, Mexico, Israel, Singapore, The Philippines been treating their MS patients with HSCT, some for over 20 years & yet the U S still won’t?? Thank heavens most of these country’s will now accept international patients & treat U S patients, patients that the U S should, but won’t treat!! HSCT could be helping so many people that what’s happening to MS community now in regards to HSCT is way past outrageous, it’s just flat out criminal!!!!

  2. I would love to be involved with this medical trial perhaps? I would love to be on any trial that is trying to bring a helpful assistance to us with ppms. left my interest with my neurologist at NNUH norwich

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Hi Karen
      if you participate, please let us know about your experience (what you can share, as trials do require some privacy). I hope your neurologist can find you something, and I know many with PPMS will appreciate your efforts to help the whole team!

  3. Denise says:

    Would love to try it- always read articles about it- I have PPMS and it always seems like we’re last to get anything

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      It’s really super hard to have PPMS for this additional reason… the focus of research tends to be on RRMS. Maybe stem cell therapy might be one therapy that can break that pattern. Keeping fingers crossed for all my PPMS peers! Best wishes,

      • Andy Coburn says:

        I’m with you both on this. I’ve had MS for 25 years and am OK but would such love to stop it and not be so damn numb and have brain issues stopping if possible!!

  4. Jay says:

    People, you need to leave the US for stem cell transplant. They are playing games with your life. They had a cure all most 40 years ago. It’s such a shame what they are doing.

  5. Thanks for writing about stem cells. I actually didn’t know that stem cell therapy could help researchers understand how diseases can develop. This seems really important especially if figuring out how they develop could also help figure out how to prevent them.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Hi Taylor
      Yes, there’s a lot of hope in stem cell research. Politics can delay advances, unfortunately. But you are right, this new clinical approach promises a lot for so many people who need help, not just people with MS.

  6. My brother has multiple sclerosis, and he wants to become better in order for him to find work again. It’s good to know that there’s a kind of stem cell therapy that is more effective in treating multiple sclerosis. I think I should help him find a clinic that offers this so he’ll finally be able to feel better.

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