People with Multiple Sclerosis are holding out great hope tonight over clinical trials that will begin right here in Ottawa. It's part of an international study into special stem cells that have the ability to repair damage.  There has been much talk before about stem cells and their therapeutic potential.  This research goes beyond that, looking at the possibility that these particular mesenchymal stem cells might be able to fix nerves ravaged by MS.

For people like 60-year-old Margo Murchison, it is a ray of hope in a bleak future living with her disease that has now become chronic. 

‘I’d like to live a life like everybody else,’ says Murchison, ‘be free to do whatever I want and help other people instead of relying on them to help me.’

Murchison was 27 years old, a French Immersion teacher, when she was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disabling disease of the central nervous system.  She has since lost the use of her legs, her eyesight on two occasions and now one hand. But her mind is crisp and clear and full of hope for these clinical trials being driven right here in Ottawa.

‘With the potential of stem cells, it's an exciting time to be dealing with a chronic illness.  There is great hope for the future.’

Dr. Mark Freedman is the man giving her that hope.  The Ottawa neurologist, who is the director of the Multiple Sclerosis Research Unit at the Ottawa Hospital, is leading the first Canadian clinical trial into the use of mesenchymal  stem cells (MSCs) for MS.  The trial is called MESCAMS (MEsenchymal Stem Cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients) and will evaluate the safety and potential benefits of MSCs that will be extracted from a patient’s own bone marrow, expanded in a specialized lab and then infused back into the same patient.

These stems cells have unique properties that help reduce inflammation. Most importantly, they promote repair. 

‘Though this project we are launching is looking primarily at the biological property we know they have which is turning down the inflammation,’ explains Dr. Freedman, who is also a professor with the University of Ottawa, ‘we are also going to be very, very closely monitoring them for repair.  If we can pick that up in a way that can be reproduced and measured over time, the next phase is to go after patients with damage and fix it.’

Nine countries worldwide are taking part in this research.  Dr. Freedman is the lead for the Canadian trial and the co-lead of the international study that will involve 200 patients overall.  Dr. A. Uccelli of Genoa, Italy is the other co-lead. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world.

Winnipeg will be the other Canadian centre conducting trials, under the leadership of Dr. James J Marriott of the University of Manitoba.   Forty Canadian patients will be enrolled, twenty in each city.  The MS Society of Canada and the MS Scientific Research Foundation are backing those trials with a $4.2 million dollar grant. 

The study, of course, will take years.  Margo Murchison has no choice but to wait.   Though not part of the clinical trial, she has great hope for this stem cell research and says if Dr. Freedman is able to find evidence of any nerve repair through these trials that would be fabulous. 

‘I really believe there will be a cure someday,’ she says, ‘why not now?’