Rare Autoimmune Disease Goes Into Remission After Stem Cell Therapy

By A. Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

New research at Northwestern University and the Mayo Clinic confirms that we can heal ourselves with our own stem cells. A small study published in the journal Neurology found that treating a person with stem cells derived from their own blood or bone marrow can reverse a rare autoimmune disease called neuromyelitis optica (NMO).

Also known as Devic Disease, NMO is a chronic neurological disorder that causes inflammation in the optic nerve and spinal cord. Common symptoms are eye pain that can rapidly lead to blindness, and pain in the spine, legs or arms that can lead to paralysis. Bladder and bowel control may also be affected.

Neuromyelitis optica is often misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis (MS). The normal course of treatment is high-dose corticosteroids and immunosuppressants.

In the study, 13 patients with NMO were first given drugs to suppress their immune system, followed by an infusion of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCT).

The results were significant and durable. After 57 months, most patients were in remission and were off all immunosuppressive drugs.

A biological marker in the blood that correlates with NMO disease activity also disappeared.


“There is marked difference between a transplant and the drug,” said lead author Dr. Richard Burt, a professor of medicine and chief of immunotherapy and autoimmune disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The transplant improved patients’ neurological disability and quality of life. They got better, and the disease maker disappeared for up to five years after transplant.”

Two of the patients relapsed after the HSCT infusion and had to go back on drug therapy.

According to Northwestern Now, Dr. Burt is a pioneer in the field of using autologous stem cells to treat autoimmune disease. Previous research by Burt has shown that HSCT can reverse relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, systemic sclerosis and chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.

When interviewed  by The Daily Northwestern about the implications of Burt’s work, Feinberg Associate Neurology Professor Dr. Roumen Balabanov predicted that chronic autoimmune diseases would be treated through “a single, radical approach” that would allow patients to live normal lives without being dependent on medications to control their symptoms.

“The point of this treatment being radical is that the patients will actually have normal lives,” Balabanov said. “They don’t have to take those lifelong medications.”

Those lifelong drugs can cost up to $500,000 per year. Conversely, the HSCT transplant costs about $100,000.

Dr. Burt is currently on sabbatical to teach his HSCT protocol at stem cell clinics around the country and to write a book. Actress Selma Blair recently had her multiple sclerosis treated by Burt’s clinic. She has been very public about her experience on social media and in interviews.

Recently the Scottish Health Technologies Group recommended HSCT be approved in Scotland to treat relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food. He has received stem cell treatment in China. 

The information in this column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.