I saw a story on the news last night about Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and their work to develop targeted, customized treatments – and maybe even a cure – for cancer. They are working with specially engineered mice, the JAX mice, growing exact replicas of specific human tumors. As the tumors develop, the researchers apply a variety of treatments to measure how successful or unsuccessful they are. From these results, they can approach an individual patient and apply very specifically targeted treatment regimens. As one researcher said, at the moment the treatment of cancer is sort of a hit-or-miss thing. Each cancer is slightly different, and what works for one patient might not work for another. As Jackson Labs collects their results in a huge database, they can more closely design individualized treatment protocols to treat a very specific cancer.
This is very similar to the work being done at the Multiple Sclerosis Center of New York. They are currently engaged in a trial using stem cells derived from bone marrow samples taken from volunteers with confirmed MS. In the same way, they hope to be able to better understand how to treat multiple sclerosis on a case-by-case basis, rather than the current scatter-shot, trial and error approach we are now restricted to. As with cancer, each case of MS is slightly different, and no one treatment will be effective in every case. Neurologists now run through a fairly standard list of treatments, some of which work wonders, some of which have little or no effect.
For example, Tysabri, with it’s storied history and scary side-effects, has been found to be very useful for some patients. Those patients often report a noticeable improvement in their health, while others see no change. Even the basic, first-line drugs like Rebif, Avonex and the other “CRABS,” are only effective for limited percentages of people. Some argue that they are not really effective at all.
Similar to the research being done at the Jackson Lab, the MSCNY study will eventually be able to provide not only more specifically targeted treatment protocols for people with MS, but will lead to key insights into the cause and possible prevention of multiple sclerosis altogether. The study has moved beyond the mice and is currently working with a small sample of human subjects. It is expected that within a few years, the study will yield results that can be more broadly applied to the general MS population.
This kind of stem cell research holds tremendous promise for understanding the mechanisms of diseases of all types, and will one day provide targeted treatments designed specifically for individual patients. One day, they might even lead the way to prevention and cures.