New studies show promise for using a person's own stem cells to protect them from autoimmune disorders like diabetes and multiple sclerosis
What if researchers could reboot a misfiring immune system? That is the intriguing possibility raised by stem cell transplant specialistRichard Burt.He is pioneering a new treatment for autoimmune disorders, one in which patients’ immune systems are suppressed and then replaced with an infusion of their own immune stem cells, filtered out from their blood. These then grow into all types of blood cells, including the white blood cells of the immune system.
In autoimmune disorders, the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body’s own tissues. In the case of type 1 diabetes, it destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, and in multiple sclerosis it strikes the central nervous system.
Burt, of Northwestern University, first imagined stem cell treatments 20 years ago, while working with leukemia patients who received bone marrow transplants; the patients subsequently lost their immunity to childhood diseases like mumps and measles, necessitating a new round of vaccinations. Burt reasoned that transplants could reset the immune systems in autoimmune patients in the same way, stopping the assaults on healthy cells.