A treatment that has the potential to reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis has been tested in clinical trials in four countries- but some Australian doctors are warning against the treatment.
Multiple sclerosis is a debilitating disease affecting more than 23,000 Australians.
Characterised by damage to the central nervous system, some patients lose their ability to walk, speak and think normally.
Australian sufferers are desperate for the latest treatment and many flock to Europe for Haematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant treatment (HSCT) - where a patient’s bone marrow is injected with their own stem cells to “reboot” their immune system.
MS Research Australia (MSRA) says the treatment is available on a very limited basis in Australia for patients with severe MS who have not responded to other therapies.
MSRA says while the outcome for some of the patients in the UK trial has been very positive, the treatment may not work for all forms of MS and they caution that more research is needed to understand who will benefit the most from this treatment that can also carry significant risks
Professor of Stem Cell Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Martin Pera, said the treatment uses chemotherapy, which is more aggressive than other treatments available.
“There are clinics offering this treatment outside of a trial setting, at considerable cost and obviously patients who are suffering will look for answers,” he said.
“But really until we have carefully conducted trials that look in a very careful way at the outcomes of this treatment will we know whether its any good.
“This is not like taking an asprin or a valium. These are toxic drugs with a number of side-effects. “Certainly its not a treatment you would undergo unless you had very strong indications that it would actually do some good.”
The treatment has enabled some patients to walk again, doctors from Britain's Royal Hallamshire Hospital said.
About 20 patients have received bone marrow transplants using their own stem cells in a clinical trial at the hospital, which is also being run in the US, Sweden and Brazil.
Some patients who were paralysed have been able to walk again.
Professor Basil Sharrack, from the hospital, told the BBC Panorama program: "To have a treatment which can potentially reverse disability is really a major achievement."
The treatment - known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) - aims to destroy the faulty immune system using chemotherapy.
It is then rebuilt with stem cells harvested from the patient's own blood.
Professor John Snowden, consultant haematologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: "The immune system is being reset or rebooted back to a time point before it caused MS.
"It's clear we have made a big impact on patients' lives, which is gratifying."
More than 100,000 people in the UK have MS, which is an incurable neurological condition.
One patient, Steven Storey, told the BBC: "I went from running marathons to needing 24-hour acute care. At one point I couldn't even hold a spoon and feed myself."
Within a few days of the transplant he was able to move his toes, and after four months he could stand unaided.
He still needs a wheelchair but is astounded at his progress: "It's been incredible. I was in a dire place, but now I can swim and cycle and I am determined to walk."
Holly Drewry was 21 when she was diagnosed with MS and her condition deteriorated after she gave birth to her daughter Isla.
Ms Drewry needed a wheelchair before her transplant, but after the treatment she walked out of hospital.
Dr Emma Gray, head of clinical trials at UK's MS Society, said: "Ongoing research suggests stem cell treatments such as HSCT could offer hope, and it's clear that, in the cases highlighted by Panorama, they've had a life-changing impact.
"However, trials have found that, while HSCT may be able to stabilise or improve disability in some people with MS, it may not be effective for all types of the condition."