Multiple Sclerosis - Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Diseases / Research

Multiple Sclerosis

Fred Hutch researchers are investigating stem cell transplantation as a multiple sclerosis treatment, and have also produced a breakthrough drug treatment that is giving hope to patients with a relapsing form of the disease. This drug prevents inflammation associated with multiple sclerosis and has the potential to treat other autoimmune diseases and even melanoma.

Fast Facts

  • Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system attacks its own tissues, resulting in inflammation. Like other autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis occurs more frequently in women than men.
  • Multiple sclerosis impairs the central nervous system because the immune system specifically goes after a protein called myelin, which coats nerve fibers.
  • Some multiple sclerosis patients have severe symptoms, including paralysis and the inability to move or feel due to nerve damage, but others suffer only from mild weakness or numbness. These symptoms can be persistent or periodic and may also include loss of balance, loss of coordination and tremors.
  • Scientists suspect there is a genetic component to multiple sclerosis, as certain families have an increased predisposition to autoimmune diseases in general. The incidence of multiple sclerosis is higher in the most northern latitudes, suggesting environmental factors may also be at play. A viral infection may also trigger the disease's onset in genetically predisposed individuals.

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Treatment & Prognosis

Developing a drug to prevent relapse — A breakthrough drug for treatment of patients with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis arose from a method developed by Dr. Elizabeth Wayner beginning in the late 1980s. Known as Tysabri® (Natalizumab), the drug uses an antibody — that is, a type of immune-system protein that binds exclusively to another protein — to prevent the inflammation associated with multiple sclerosis.

Tysabri may also prove beneficial for patients with other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, Crohn disease and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer. Learn more >

Using stem cell transplants to treat multiple sclerosis – Researchers are leading clinical trials to examine the feasibility of high-dose chemotherapy and stem-cell transplantation – the standard treatment for leukemia and other blood cancers – in treating severe forms of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis and scleroderma (also known as systemic sclerosis). With transplantation, it may be possible to deplete the reactive cells that are triggering the immune system to attack the body. The early results have been promising, prompting larger studies.
Learn more

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