Two Canadian research centres are gearing up for a clinical trial to determine if a type of stem cell can help alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital and Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre will each recruit 20 MS patients for the trial that will test whether mesenchymal stem cells can help repair damage caused by the disease.

MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation that damages the protective covering of the nerves, leading to physical and cognitive impairment.

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Mesenchymal stem cells found in bone marrow, fat, skin tissue and umbilical cord blood have the ability to modify the immune system and reduce inflammation.

Half the patients in the study will be randomly selected to receive their own stem cells soon after extraction and expansion in the lab; the other half will get a mock solution, followed by their previously frozen stem cells 24 weeks later.

Lead researcher Dr. Mark Freedman of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute says the stem cell therapy has shown preliminary effectiveness in clinical trials involving some other diseases.

Freedman and Ottawa Hospital colleague Dr. Harry Atkins pioneered a different kind of stem cell therapy for MS that uses hematopoietic stem cells to replace a patient's defective immune system with a new one that no longer attacks the brain and spinal cord.

"Our experience with hematopoietic stem cell transplantation has been very encouraging, but this therapy has serious risks and it is only appropriate for a very small percentage of people with aggressive early MS," said Freedman.

"On the other hand, we really don't know what the effect of mesenchymal stem cell therapy will be in people with MS," he said. "It involves a different treatment approach that does not require the use of chemotherapy and therefore has fewer risks compared with hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.

"Mesenchymal stem cell therapy, if successful, might offer a future treatment option for a larger group of patients."

The researchers were awarded a $4.2-million grant to conduct the study from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation.