WASHINGTON – Researchers shared early results of a new experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis involving adult stem cells at a congressional briefing Wednesday afternoon.

Jeffrey Cohen, M.D., a researcher from the Cleveland Clinic and principle investigator for the project,  presented his work at a briefing for members of  the House and Senate. Joining him was Bill White, the first patient in North America to receive the new treatment.

The Cleveland Clinic hosted the event in conjunction with the bipartisan Congressional MS Caucus and the National MS Society to raise awareness of the study and underscore the importance of continued funding for MS research.

A disease of the central nervous system, MS interrupts the flow of information within the brain, as well as between the brain and the body. Cohen’s study is designed to treat – and potentially reverse — the effects of MS by using a patient’s own adult stem cells. These cells are said to reduce inflammation in the nervous system and encourage nerve cells to repair themselves from the damage caused by MS.

Since 1993, eight FDA-approved medications have become available to slow the progression of MS. However, Cohen said, none of these are able to reverse the effects of the disease.

“[These treatments] mostly work on the early stages of the disease – they prevent worsening, but they don’t reverse the effects,” said Cohen.  “There’s a lot of hope that stem cells could address that part of the disease.”

Cohen said the goal is that the treatment tested in his study would eventually be used in conjunction along with what is  currently available. That’s four to six years away.

However, he cautioned that the study is in its earliest phase, and is being monitored closely by the FDA. Only 11 of the 24 patients slated to be part of the study have been enrolled, and only two who have completed with the full process.

“There’s a great deal of enthusiasm for stem cell therapies. We have great hopes…but we want to make sure we can do it and do it safely.”

Bill White, left, the first patient in North America to receive stem cell treatment for MS appears in Washington to discuss his experience. (Rachel Morello/Medill)

Bill White, the first patient in North America to receive the stem cell infusion, said so far he has not experienced any negative side effects. On the contrary, White, 46, of Cleveland said his treatment has been much more positive than his previous experience taking MS medications. Since his treatment in June 2011, he said he has experienced improved vision and balance.

“So far I’m just astonished,” said White, the owner of a gym and a self-proclaimed fitness buff who had never had other significant medical conditions. “I think this is a big thing for us, for MS, I really do.”

More than 400,000 people in the United States live with MS, in addition to 2.1 million people around the world. According to the National Institutes of Health, most people first experience symptoms of the disease between the ages of 20 and 40.

Funding for the project came by way of a $2.75 million, four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as a separate grant from the National Institutes of Health. At this stage, the plan is to go back to the same sources to fund phase two of the study.

“The single most important movement is to commit more money to research funding,” said David Chatel, Executive Vice President of Advocacy for the National MS Society.

Cleveland’s congresswoman, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, reiterated Chatel’s point, stating her pride in institutions like the Cleveland Clinic.

“If in fact we are going to be the nation we think we ought to be, then we have to focus on the things that made this nation great…research and creativity.”

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