Halifax neurologist excited for 'dramatic' new MS treatment

A new study published in The Lancet medical journal Thursday suggests a new treatment could stop the disease from progressing — and even reverse it.

The high-risk treatment shows the brain can repair MS damage, says Dr. Jock Murray

Dr. Jock Murray joined CBC Mainstreet host Bob Murphy for an interview Friday. (CBC)

A Halifax neurologist says he's amazed how far multiple sclerosis treatment has come since he started in the field. 

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system. It can be debilitating, degrading people's strength and cognitive abilities within years. 

A new study published in The Lancet medical journal Thursday suggests a new treatment could stop the disease from progressing — and even reverse it.

"We're in a whole new era because up until 1990s, we didn't have any treatment that altered the outcome of MS," Dr. Jock Murray, 78, told CBC Mainstreet. "We're now showing therapies including this one that will stop the disease and allow the brain then to repair."

New treatment

A scientist with Dalhousie University, Murray is considered one of the world's leading experts in the field. He helped with the 13-year study, which still is continuing, with patient selection and safety, overseeing results.

"If MS is caused by the immune system reacting against the brain, what if you gave them a new immune system?" Murray said. 

In a simplified explanation, scientists take bone marrow out of the patient, give them intensive chemotherapy and then inject those bone marrow stem cells into the blood stream. 

Doctors found the disease stopped and the brain repaired the damage, Murray said.

High-risk

Now, the treatment is high-risk, the journal noted, and won't be for broad use. One of the 24 patients died during the trial, which Murray said was due to chemotherapy complications. 

He said the treatment, since improved but "still has its risks," could be used on patients with the worst cases. 

"Nobody believes that we're going to use bone marrow transplantation to treat the 50,000 MS patients in Canada, but what we've learned from this is something that we can extend to the management in other ways," Murray said. 

'Not a simple process'

Murray said he worries the importance of the study could be lost when compared to the liberation treatment, which widen veins in the neck — like "plumbing."

This "is not a simple process," but also one with a stronger grounding in science, he argued.

It's also not as easy as injecting stem cells from someone else on a medical tourism trip, the validity of which Murray said he questions.

Other treatments, including drugs, are being developed using this idea that the brain can repair MS damage, he said. And that gives him great hope for helping more people. 

"We keep learning more and more want to take the next step," Murray said. "What we're seeing in the last decade is just dramatic."

With files from CBC Mainstreet