AURORA, Colo. — University of Colorado Anschutz researchers are part of a first-of-its-kind worldwide study in humans that could help people living with multiple sclerosis from further damage.
Over two million people across the globe live with MS. The Rocky Mountain MS Center and the Multiple Sclerosis Alliance of Southern Colorado estimate around one in every 550 people in Colorado have MS.
Darrin Johnson, 56, of Aurora is actively involved in the National Multiple Sclerosis S Colorado-Wyoming Chapter.
“I’ve been serving on the board of trustees here at the National MS Society at the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter since 2014,” Johnson said.
In 2007, Johnson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord. He said he went to the doctor after his feet went numb playing softball.
“They said 'Well, you have a 90% chance that you have MS,'” Johnson remembered.
Johnson has experienced several symptoms since his diagnosis.
"I couldn't work for three months at a time and that's where I couldn't stay awake for more than an hour and a half at a time. I couldn't feel any of my extremities,” he said. “I have some permanent numbness in my hands. I can't feel six fingers. I still have some numbness from my neck down.”
Despite some challenges, Johnson considers himself lucky — MS hasn't stopped him from doing the things he loves. However, he's concerned about if and when the disease will progress as he gets older.
Dr. Angelo D’Alessandro, professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at CU Anschutz, is part of an international study in humans that may help protect the brain from further damage from MS. CU Anschutz is working with researchers in England and Italy. The first part of the trial has wrapped up. Fifteen patients with progressive MS were recruited from two hospitals in Italy. Stem cells from a miscarried fetus were used to inject into the patients' brains. The patients received different doses and were monitored for about two years.
“We observed that markers of inflammation and markers of metabolism that are usually associated with worsening of the disease actually not only remained stable, but improved proportionately to the dose of stem cells that were transplanted,” D’Alessandro said.
Dr. D’Alessandro said results are promising enough that he and his colleagues are already discussing phase two of the trial.
"Hopefully, the next phases of the clinical trial will provide evidence to the extent that we can make claims on efficacy,” D’Alessandro said.
D’Alessandro said ultimately, the goal is to find a cure for MS, but a potential therapy that could stop the progression of MS would be a major breakthrough.
"As this disease is highly invalidating, especially in the progressive stage, even recovering function, for example, in one arm could be a life-changing improvement for a patient,” D’Alessandro said.
It’s a potential therapy that Johnson is hopeful to see in his lifetime.
“That would be huge for all of us that live with this,” he said.
D’Alessandro said he hopes to recruit and enroll patients for the second part of the trial in the next six to 12 months. He said stem cells from the fetus used in the first trial would be generated and expanded so another fetus would not be needed in the future.