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Adv Biomed Res 2016,  5:46

The role of stem cell therapy in multiple sclerosis: An overview of the current status of the clinical studies

1 Department of Medical Sciences, Islamic Azad University, Najafabad Branch, Tehran; Isfahan Neurosciences Research Center, Al Zahra Hospital, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
2 PhD Candidate in Epidemiology, School of Public Health and Institute of Public Health Research, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
3 Isfahan Neurosciences Research Center, Al Zahra Hospital, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
4 Isfahan Neurosciences Research Center, Al Zahra Hospital, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran; Department of Neurology, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran

Date of Submission08-Feb-2014
Date of Acceptance19-Aug-2014
Date of Web Publication16-Mar-2016

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Amir Pouya Tanhaei
Isfahan Neurosciences Research Center, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2277-9175.178791

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The complexity of multiple sclerosis (MS) and the incompetence of a large number of promised treatments for MS urge us to plan new and more effective therapeutic approaches that aim to suppress ongoing autoimmune responses and induction of local endogenous regeneration. Emerging data propose that hematopoietic, mesenchymal, and neural stem cells have the potential to restore self-tolerance, provide in situ immunomodulation and neuroprotection, as well as promote regeneration. Thus, in this article, we will first provide an overview of the cell sources for proposed mechanisms that contribute to the beneficial effects of stem cell transplantation, the ideal route and/or timing of stem cell-based therapies for each main stem cell group, and finally, an overview of the current status of stem cell research in clinical trial stages in MS by comparable and healthy therapeutic effects of different stem cell therapies for MS patients.

Keywords: Cell therapy and transplantation, clinical trial, hematopoietic stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells, multiple sclerosis, neural stem/precursor cells, stem cells

How to cite this article:
Meamar R, Nematollahi S, Dehghani L, Mirmosayyeb O, Shayegannejad V, Basiri K, Tanhaei AP. The role of stem cell therapy in multiple sclerosis: An overview of the current status of the clinical studies. Adv Biomed Res 2016;5:46

How to cite this URL:
Meamar R, Nematollahi S, Dehghani L, Mirmosayyeb O, Shayegannejad V, Basiri K, Tanhaei AP. The role of stem cell therapy in multiple sclerosis: An overview of the current status of the clinical studies. Adv Biomed Res [serial online] 2016 [cited 2018 Aug 16];5:46. Available from:

  Introduction Top

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune and neurodegenerative disease of the central nervous system (CNS). In autoimmune etiology, there is a prevailing theory in which oligodendrocytes are believed to be permanently damaged by CD4+ T-cells, CD8+ T-cells, and macrophages.[1] In MS patients, autoreactive CD4 T-cell penetration of the CNS leads to myelin injury and inflammatory responses and scarring of white matter, which can lead to severe disability and neurological defects.[1] MS progression following demyelination typically pursues one of four courses: Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), secondary progressive MS (SPMS), primary progressive MS (PPMS) and progressive-relapsing MS (PRMS). To date, the effectiveness of disease-modifying drugs has been approved only in a limited number of MS patients, especially in the relapsing forms of PRMS,[2],[3] and the apparent repair-promoting activity of these drugs has not yet been reported, due to partial inhibitory effect on disease progression.

Stem cells (SCs) have uncovered a new perspective as therapeutic tools in neurological disorders such as MS. These cells are pluripotent cells with a capacity to give rise to different cell types,[4],[5],[6],[7] that are infinite sources of neurons and glia for therapies aimed at cell replacement or neuroprotection in disorders affecting the brain and spinal cord like MS.[8],[9],[10],[11] The two main stem cell types are embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and adult stem cells. ESCs are formed four to five days after fertilization from the inner cell mass of the blastocytes with an ability for unlimited growth in culture that could be related to a high risk of teratoma formation. Adult stem cells are specialized cells including hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and neural stem cells (NSCs).[8] In the present article, we aim to review the literatures regarding major kinds of adult stem cells, which we have transplanted in clinical trial studies into MS patients.

Mesenchymal stem cell and sources

Mesenchymal stem cells are self-replicating cells that are capable of differentiating in multidirectional pathways, such as, osteoblasts, chondrocytes, myocytes, marrow stromal cells, tendon-ligament fibroblasts, adipocytes, and neural cells.[12],[13],[14] While a routine source of human MSCs is the bone marrow, they have been also derived from multiple adult tissues comprising of adipose tissue, umbilical cord blood, placenta, thymus, and dental pulp.[15],[16],[17],[18]

The application of bone marrow-derived MSCs consists of several practical advantages:First, MSCs can be gained readily and safely from adult bone marrow, even from patients with progressive disease; second, MSCs, which are normally present in small concentrations in the bone marrow section, can be enriched and greatly prolonged by in vitro culturing; third, autologous MSCs can be administered securely without the need for immunosuppressive treatment, to avoid rejection; and finally, adult MSCs have been shown to be less prone to genetic defects and malignant transformation during multiple routes in vitro, implying a low risk for induction of treatment–related malignant neoplasm.[19]

Mechanisms of beneficial effects of mesenchymal stem cells

Transplanted MSCs not only directly differentiate into neurons and endothelial cells after induction, but also, it is surely believed, that their secretome can mediate their valuable actions. Several autocrine/paracrine factors could be secreted from MSCs that have many benefits.[20],[21],[22]

A broad range of these neuroregulatory secretions could be released both in vivo and in vitro that yield a summation in neurogenesis, inhibition of apoptosis, chemoattraction, glial scar formation, immunomodulation, angiogenesis, neuronal and glial cell survival, expansion of endogenous axonal and myelin repair processes, neurotrophic and neuroprotective actions, and integration and improvement of local progenitor cells.[23]

Several inhibitory responses of immune system are accountable for these protective effects, as well as anti-inflammatory responses by decrements in peripheral T-cells, B cells, regulatory T cells (Tregs) and natural killer (NK) cells. On the other hand, they inhibit the maturation and function of antigen-presenting cells and reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines.[24],[25]

Bone marrow MSCs can transdifferentiate into neuron-like cells in vitro under specific-induced culture situations and, therefore, might also deliver cell substitutes to the injured CNS. However, the mechanism of the bone marrow stem cells' transformation to neuro-ectodermal lineage is still uncertain.[26]

Thus, MSC–based treatments have the potential to be an advanced and reasonable treatment to repair inflamed and impaired tissues.[20]

Route of administration of mesenchymal stem cells

Intrathecal injection of MSCs does not affect cytokine dissimilarity in peripheral blood.[13] The safety and possibility of autologous intravenous (IV) MSC therapy in MS has been established.[27] Intrathecal injection is a route of drug administration, which is performed by injection into the spinal canal, more specifically into the subarachnoid space, to reach the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The rationale for intrathecal management is transportation of cells directly into the CNS and overcoming the restricted amount of cell engrafting upon IV administration and enhancing the total yield at position of damage. However, local delivery may increase MSC ability to promote repair by secreting neurotrophic factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and antioxidant molecules.[15]

In the animal model of MS, experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, IV injection of MSCs into C57BL/6J mice was shown to down regulate the clinical harshness of the disease with a parallel suppression of CNS inflammation through induction of T-cell and decrease of demyelination.[19]

It is claimed that intrathecal injection is less invasive compared to direct injection into lesions, demyelinating lesions especially. However, the pathological heterogeneity and multifocality of MS lesions could limit the efficacy of such a method.[28] Also, intrathecal administration in humans may lead to meningeal irritation. In one case, temporary acute encephalopathy with seizures, likely related to CNS inflammation, was reported in a subject who had received a high dose of MSCs intrathecally. Based on this evidence, IV administration of MSCs should be considered the preferable method in comparison with intrathecal delivery.[15],[29]

Hematopoietic stem cell and sources

Hematopoietic stem cells are found chiefly within bone marrow in niches created by surrounding stromal cells. HSCs have the potential to differentiate into the main hemato- and lymphopoietic precursors, which then differentiate into mature cells. They are generated in large numbers throughout human life and continually repopulate blood and immune systems.[30]

Hematopoietic stem cells have some advantages including self-renewal, differentiation to a variety of specialized cells, mobilization out of the bone marrow into circulating blood, and undergone apoptosis. There appears to be two kinds of HSCs; long-term stem cells that are capable of self-renewal and short-term stem cells that can immediately regenerate all the different types of blood cells, but under normal circumstances cannot renew themselves over the long term. Short-term stem cells are capable of proliferating, but have a limited capacity to differentiate into more than one cell type.[31]

The sources of HSCs are bone marrow, peripheral blood, umbilical cord blood, fetal hematopoietic system, ESCs and embryonic germ cells.[31]

Avoidance of anaesthesia, the lack of need for hospitalization or blood transfusion, and low risk of serious adverse events are major advantages of the peripheral SCs, which make them the favourable source of SCs worldwide.[31]

Mechanisms of beneficial effects of hematopoietic stem cells

Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is unique among stem cell-related treatments as it does not primarily aim at neuroregeneration; it rather aims at replacement/resetting of the whole immune system. All the series of immune cells from progenitor HSCs are regenerated following the destruction of the 'old' immune system by radical immunosuppression. In addition, HSCs can transdifferentiate into cells from the neuronal lineage and show their neuroprotective/neurotrophic effects.[32],[33],[34]

Route of administration of hematopoietic stem cells

Hematopoietic stem cells may be collected directly from the bone marrow through multiple aspirations performed under regional or general anesthesia. For transplantation purpose, HSCs could be mobilized from the bone marrow into the circulation intravenously using chemotherapy and/or hematopoietic growth factors and then collected by leukopheresis. The product can be processed to remove contaminating immune cells and then cryopreserved or it can be cryopreserved without further manipulation.[35]

Hematopoietic stem cells are transplanted in two approaches — autologous and allogeneic. In autologous HSCT (AHSCT), the immune system is wiped out by reinfusion of the patient's own HSCs. This approach has originated from the idea that by immune re-formation the status of tolerance to self-proteins can be re-established and the freshly developing, 're-educated' lymphocytes stop their role as the carriers of the immunological memory of previous autoimmunity.[36]

Neural stem/precursor cells and sources

Neural stem cells are defined as self-renewing multipotent progenitors existing in the developing and adult CNS. Generally, they are considered by their capacity to symmetrically self-renew and their ability to discriminate into neurons, oligodendrocytes, and astrocytes through asymmetrical fate-committed division.[37]

Neural stem or progenitor cells can be obtained in different approaches and one way is the direct isolation of these cells from embryonic or adult brain tissue.[38],[39],[40] The application of NSC therapy will be realized once their purification, mass generation, and safety are guaranteed.[41]

An overview of the applicable cells in MS has shown that NSCs could provide a source of remyelinating cells with capabilities to structurally repair the CNS.[42]

Although the adult brain has long been considered to have no regenerative potential, NSCs were identified in three specific neural stem cell niches: The subventricular zone (SVZ), the external germinal layer of the cerebellum, and the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus (SGZ). Over two decades, many research groups have reported on the successful isolation and ex vivo culture of these cells from early embryonic or adult SVZ brain tissue [38],[39],[40] and they can be safely expanded in chemically defined culture media for a prolonged period.[43]

Also, recently, there has been identified a novel population of cells in the subventricular zone (SVZ) of the mammalian brain that expresses Tubulin beta-4B chain and has properties of primitive neuroectodermal cells. Tubulin beta-4B chains are significantly increased in the SVZs bordering demyelinated white matter in MS brains. Such rapid and extensive mature CNS cell generation by a rather small number of transplanted cells provides in vivo support for the therapeutic potential of this population of cells, which is reproducing Tubulin beta-4B chain in the SVZ.[44]

Mechanisms of the beneficial effects of neural stem cells

In view of the multiple mechanisms by which neural precursor cells could induce beneficial effects in MS, including their regenerative potential, their trophic, immunomodulatory, and neuroprotective properties, they seem to be an excellent candidate for cell therapy. Specifically, they may have a benefit on committed myelin–forming cells that might not possess other stem cell properties, and on non-neural cells that cannot perform remyelination.[41]

The remyelinating effect of these cells may be via one or more mechanisms, including as an immunomodulator by generating soluble factors, direct cell replacement by differentiating into neural and glial cells in the lesion; and finally, indirect action by stimulating neural and glial differentiation of endogenous cells.[3] However, this regenerative function is inadequate in chronic MS in which progenitor cells either fail to be recruited into lesion sites or they encounter some difficulties with respect to differentiation.[45]

One of the major outcomes of the neuroprotective effects of transplanted NPCs is the significant rise in survival and function of endogenous glial and neuronal progenitors escaping from primary insults. This phenomenon has broad implications and is usually accompanied by increased availability of a milieu of molecules, such as neurotrophins and growth factors, immune modulatory molecules, and developmental stem cell regulators.[46]

Neural stem and progenitor cells decrease the acute deleterious inflammatory process and induce a permissive environment for axonal regeneration after spinal cord injury.[41],[47] On the other hand, there is enough correlative evidence for envisaging that the injury (inflammatory) microenvironment is likely to play a critical component to impact the establishment of atypical ectopic niches and in turn to maintain cell-to-cell communication between transplanted NPCs and endogenous cells.[48]

Route of administration of neural stem cells

Several animal model of multiple sclerosis studies [47] showed that IV administration of NSCs presently has limited or without any therapeutic potential for neuroinflammatory disease in mice, and probably also for human MS.[49]

Interestingly, intrathecal or intraventricular injections, which bypass the blood–brain barrier (BBB) by placing cells in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) compartment are sufficient to produce benefit in various animal models of neurological diseases such as MS.[50]

A major rationale for intracerebroventricular (ICV) route of cell delivery is that most white matter tracts that are involved in MS are in close proximity to the ventricular and spinal subarachnoid spaces. Following ICV injection, transplanted neural precursors may disseminate throughout the ventricular and subarachnoid space, enabling their inflammation-induced targeted migration into the white matter and may get the remyelinating cells closest to the multiple foci of disease in MS without a separating barrier.[41]

Clinical trial studies of stem cell therapy in multiple sclerosis

There has been a rapid surge in clinical trials involving stem cell therapies recently and those trials are establishing the clinical pathways for an emergent new medicine. There are many studies involving autologous therapies based on the recovery of mobilized bone marrow cells, including mesenchymal and hematopoietic stem cells, which are used widely in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.[51] The characteristics of the trials conducted to test the safety and validity of MSC treatment for MS are presented in [Table 1]. In summary, most of the trials which are in phase 2 (to examine safety and tolerability of the stem cell treatment) had patients with median Expanded Disability Status Score (EDSS)\with median follow up between three and twenty-six months. All these trials provide evidence of safety and effectiveness of MSCs without using any conditioning regimen. Based on [Table 1], neither death nor major side events have occurred throughout the study courses. In a case-report by Hou et al., it is also shown that repeated injections of bone marrow–derived MSCs followed by frequent injections of umbilical cord MSCs (both intravenously) would improve one point on patient's EDSS score and diminish many magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) lesions.[58]
Table 1: Summary of published clinical trials for mesenchymal stem cell transplantation in multiple sclerosis

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Notwithstanding the promising results of MSCs therapy, it induced some major adverse events in one case report. Alderazi, et al. described an MS patient, who received repeated intrathecal doses of allogenic CD 34+ MSCs derived from umbilical cord blood, as well as infusions of autologous adipose-derived stem cells obtained by liposuction. The authors reported severe meningoencephalomyelitis, which was probably due to stem cell transplantation.[59]

The characteristics of clinical trials in the role of Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (AHSCT) in the treatment of MS are presented in [Table 2]. Most trials have been conducted in small phase 1 (to determine toxicity and major side effects of the treatment) or 2, with SPMS participants who had a mean EDSS score baseline between 3 and 9.5 and a median follow-up between 5 months and 15 years. There are some adverse events reported including breakdown in task performance, bacterial infections, or sepsis; However, fever is the most frequent adverse event reported.[71] It is also shown that AHSCT could result in significant improvement of patient's quality of life.[63] The Progression–Free Survival (PFS) ranged between 82% in 100 days and 25% in 15 years after transplantation. In addition, BCNU (bis-chloroethylnitrosourea) -etoposide-cytarabine -melphalan (BEAM) regimen (BCNU at a dosage of 300 mg/m 2; etoposide at a dosage of 200 mg/m 2; cytarabine at a dosage of 200mg/m 2; melphalan at a dosage of 140 mg/m 2)[66] is the most used immunosuppressive conditioning, which is found to be more appropriate for patients with progressive MS undergoing transplantation.
Table 2: Summary of the published clinical trials for Hematopoeitic stem cells transplantation in multiple sclerosis

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The broad spectrum of PFS seen in [Table 2] could be a result of various immunosuppressive therapies and long duration of follow-up in some studies (up to 15 years). A recent meta-regression of AHSCT (2011) found that intermediate-intensity regimens were associated with a significantly higher PFS compared to high-intensity regimens like total body irradiation (TBI).[71] A possible explanation for this finding is that the neurotoxicity of the high-intensity TBI plus cyclophosphamide (CY) regimen may lead to increased axonal damage and degeneration in patients with progressive MS, thus contributing to disease progression.[72] However, it is shown that in severely disabled patients with malignant MS, pulsed CY may improve functional status and permit successful delivery of AHSCT.[73]

Authors of another systematic review (2008) concluded that intermediate-intensity immunosuppressive therapy (such as BEAM) is more favorable as a conditioning regimen since it is assumed to be related to a lower risk of treatment-related toxicity.[74] Moreover, in this work it is found that deaths due to MS-related complications are prominent while it is reported that pneumonia is the major cause of death after AHSCT.[71] Overall, it is shown that AHSCT can be regarded as a potential therapeutic procedure for MS patients, particularly those in the early stages of the disease.

We found no clinical trial regarding the use of NSC in the treatment of MS up to now.[51] It may refer to controversial results in preclinical studies. Unfortunately, most previous observations lack detailed cell graft survival and/or glial reactivity analysis at early and late time-points post-grafting.,[75] although it is important to note that early NSC graft mortality and subsequent glial cell responses themselves might be responsible for many of the observed beneficial effects following cell transplantation in CNS disorders.[75] Moreover, NSCs have been shown to have a low immunogenic potential that is nevertheless capable of activating peripheral lymphocytes.[76] Thus more extensive characterization and pre-clinical studies are necessary before neural stem cell-based therapies are used in a clinical setting.

  Conclusion Top

On the basis of the published evidence, to date, SC transplantation can be regarded as a potential source of treatment for MS. According to our review in the first part of this article for the stem cell sources and their mechanisms, focused on pre-clinical studies, it can be concluded that the availability of HSCs and MSCs are more than NSCs, but still NSCs which have the unique feature of beneficial effects with remyelination make it attractive for further studies in clinical stages to see whether they show this benefit in practice, particularly in the progressive stages of MS.

The inclusion criteria for patients in the limited clinical trial studies usually consist of patients who are refractory to conventional medical therapy, which decreases the likelihood to remain progression-free in the long period. In addition, in the absence of randomized trials, the probability that the included studies might differ from each other with respect to unknown prognostic factors increases. In addition, one of the major outcomes of the reports is EDSS, which is proved to have poor repeatability between different raters; therefore, conservative judgments regarding observed discrepancy in terms of EDSS is warranted.[77] Because most of the patients had SPMS, and relatively few patients with other types of MS (PPMS, PRMS, and RRMS) have so far received stem cell transplants, it is not yet possible to determine whether patients with these subtypes of MS have better outcomes.

In summary, transplantation of stem cells from either cell source could be a safe and effective therapy for MS. However, since up to now there is no controlled studies (randomized or non-randomized) comparing stem cell therapy, finding a consistent answer regarding the safety and efficacy of this type of therapy for MS patients needs future comprehensive research with large group of patients.

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