Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system, affecting about 1 in 340 Canadians. MS is considered an autoimmune disease, as the individual’s own immune system creates inflammation in the brain or spinal cord. This prevents the nervous system from working properly, resulting in a range of side-effects that can vary in severity: numbness, tingling, and physical challenges with day to day tasks such as walking.
MS is unpredictable and can evolve slowly or rapidly with attacks that are infrequent or steadily increasing. The disease is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50 and women are affected three times more often than men. There are both environmental triggers and genetic factors that are thought to play a role in the development of this disease. Geography is also linked with prevalence as there are a higher number of individuals living with MS in temperate climates such as Europe and northern North America.
There is currently no cure, but members of Ontario’s research community have discovered ways to halt the disease’s progression and in some cases even reverse its debilitating effects. Drs. Harold Atkins and Mark Freedman at The Ottawa Hospital have used chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation to successfully treat patients with severe, aggressive and early onset MS — those who were bedridden are now energetic and able-bodied once more. This breakthrough demonstrates the tremendous promise of stem cells for curing MS and other debilitating neurodegenerative diseases.