New stem cell treatment giving hope to people with multiple sclerosis

A man with multiple sclerosis says he has been given his future back after he underwent a pioneering stem cell transplant.

James Coates from Tarleton in Lancashire, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2011 after problems walking, facial numbness and cognitive issues.

Following his diagnosis, any plans he'd had were put on hold, he said.

"I didn't know if I was going to get a new symptom this week or next week or if my current symptoms were going to get worse and if they were - how worse," the dad-of-two said.

"It was the uncertainty of how the future was going to be that was the frightening thing."

But his wife Alison refused to give up hope and found out about a groundbreaking stem cell transplant trial.

He was accepted and had the transplant six and a half years ago. He says it was life changing.

James said: "I dread to think what condition I would be in if I hadn't had the transplant.

"I am 99% sure I would be in a wheelchair full term, if not worse.

"Now I can look forward to my future whereas beforehand I used to dread what the future held for me."

James Coates was diagnosed with MS in 2011. He says the transplant was life changing. Credit: ITV Granada

How does the transplant work?

Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, or AHSCT, involves harvesting the patients’ blood and bone marrow stem cells before stripping the body’s immune system using chemotherapy.

Stem cells are used to repopulate the bone marrow to make new cells, which “reboots” the immune system.

In MS, the immune system attacks the nerves, causing inflammation that affects the brain and spinal cord.

It affects 100,000 Brits, and can lead to life in a wheelchair.

It is currently incurable, and until recently, treatment has mainly used drugs that reduce the worst symptoms but do not halt the disease.

The world-first StarMS study, which has two specialist units in Liverpool and Salford, could offer new hope for people with aggressive forms of MS.

Researchers say the £2.3 million study could soon lead to patients with aggressive MS being offered the transplant as a first-line treatment, instead of only when other treatments have failed.

In MS, the immune system attacks the nerves, causing inflammation that affects the brain and spinal cord. Credit: ITV Granada

Chief trial investigator Prof John Snowden, a Consultant Haematologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, said the study may also provide insights into immune system abnormalities that cause the disease.

He said: “Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation has been shown to be highly effective in stabilising, and even reversing disability, in certain patients with multiple sclerosis.”

"It's important that we establish the exact place of stem cell transplantation in the therapeutic armamentarium of MS in the modern era - that is why we are comparing stem cell transplantation with the modern drugs that are currently available and licensed for use in MS."

The treatment’s allowed James and Alison to travel the world and make plans for the future, they hope others will now get the chance to fulfil their dreams as well.

The couple have also set up the Aims charity to raise awareness of the treatment and offer  support to people with MS.

Wife Alison found out about the groundbreaking treatment and the couple have gone on to set up a charity for people living with MS

Alison said: "James is medically retired now. He still has those disabilities so he can't really walk any distance.

"He's still got those difficulties but knowing that it isn't progressing has just been amazing in terms of quality of life for both of us."

The pilot trial is initially running in Sheffield and London but will create jobs and train staff at 19 NHS units.

It could soon offer “prolonged remission” for patients in Liverpool, Salford in Greater Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Cardiff.

It comes after a trial of AHSCT in 2016 showed miraculous results.

  • Of 55 patients who got this treatment, 6% relapsed after three years.

  • But of 55 patients given standard MS drugs, 60% suffered a relapse.

  • Advances in treatments have been rapid since that trial.

The trial is looking for 200 volunteers to take part across 19 hospital sites in the UK.

To find out more go to StarMS Study.

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