What is a stem cell transplant?

Hematopoietic stem cells
A stem cell is a type of cell in our bodies that has the potential to develop into a variety of other cell types. One type of stem cell, called the hematopoietic stem cell, can develop into any of three different types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. White blood cells are an important part of our immune system and are the part that is most important to the discussion here.

Researchers are exploring the use of hematopoietic stem cell transplants to treat MS. Scientists believe that MS is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. In the case of MS, the body attacks the protective myelin coverings of the nerve cells, causing nerve damage. A stem cell transplant may help treat MS by giving the person a "new immune system" that would hopefully be less likely to attack the body's myelin.

How a stem cell transplant works
A stem cell transplant is a major medical procedure that is done in a medical center under the supervision of experienced health professionals. First, hematopoietic stem cells are collected from the person with MS. There are two ways to get the stem cells: from the bone marrow (the spongy centre of the bone; this is called a bone marrow transplant) or from the blood (this is called a peripheral stem cell transplant). Medications may be given to increase the production of stem cells before they are collected. This type of hematopoietic stem cell transplant is called "autologous" because the person is receiving their own stem cells, rather than stem cells from a healthy donor. The most common type of transplant used in people with MS is an autologous peripheral hematopoietic stem cell transplant.

Next, the person is treated with immunosuppressive medications (medications that decrease immune system activity) and radiation to "wipe out" the old immune system cells. Then the hematopoietic stem cells are returned to the person's body by injecting them into a vein. The stem cells then move into the bone marrow, where they begin to make new red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. This is called "engraftment," and takes about 2-4 weeks. It will take a number of months for the immune system to recover fully. Until it does, the person is at an increased risk of infection. When the new white blood cells have formed, they will become part of a "new immune system" that may be less likely to attack the myelin.

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