Tai chi recommended to fight fibromyalgia

Tai chi is as good as – or even better than – aerobic exercise for aiding people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, a study has suggested.

The US trial of 226 adults with the condition showed that those who practised the martial art improved significantly more than those doing aerobic exercise over a 24-week period.

Its low-impact movements mean people of any age or fitness level can take part.

Aerobic exercise is currently a standard treatment for the condition.

But some patients find it hard to do because their symptoms keep changing.

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body and can also lead to increased sensitivity to pain, fatigue, muscle stiffness, memory problems and sleeping difficulties.

Aerobic exercises such as walking, cycling and swimming, together with resistance and strengthening exercises, like lifting weights, are recommended to help people who have been diagnosed.

But this study, published in the British Medical Journal, says the findings suggest “it may be time to rethink what type of exercise is most effective for patients”.

“Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed non-drug treatment,” the authors said.

“This mind-body approach may be considered a therapeutic option in the multi-disciplinary management of fibromyalgia.”

  • Tai Chi study ‘could help people with dementia’
  • Lady Gaga halts tour due to ‘severe pain’
  • How I’ve learned to live in constant pain

    The adults taking part in the study had not participated in tai chi or other similar types of complementary and alternative medicine in the previous six months.

    Their average age was 52 they had suffered body pain for an average of nine years and 92% of participants were women, with 61% being white.

    They were each randomly assigned to either supervised aerobic exercise twice a week for 24 weeks or to one of four supervised tai chi sessions of 12 or 24 weeks, completed once or twice each week.

    Changes in their symptom scores were assessed at 12, 24 and 52 weeks and participants continued taking their regular medicines and made their usual visits to their doctors.

    Before embarking on the trial, members of the group had to fill in a questionnaire, scoring symptoms like pain intensity, physical function, fatigue, depression, anxiety and overall wellbeing.

    While scores improved in all areas, the combined tai chi patients showed significant improvement at the 24-week stage, although there was little difference whether they did it once or twice a week.

    The effects of tai chi were consistent across all the instructors and nobody suffered any serious adverse effects.

    The researchers did say there were some limitations in their study – participants were aware of their treatment group assignment and attendance at sessions differed between the two forms of exercise.

    However, they said that key strengths of their research were that it featured a large and diverse sample of people and had a longer follow-up than previous studies.


    A guide to tai chi

    • Tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements
    • Studies have shown that it helps people aged 65 and over to reduce stress, improve posture, balance and mobility and increase leg muscle strength
    • Some research shows it can reduce the risk of falls
    • There is some evidence it can improve mobility in the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis
    • Nobody is too old or unfit to take up tai chi
    • Tai chi is characterised by its slow, graceful, continuous movements – many of which are completed with bent knees in a squat-like position

      Source: NHS Choices


      The findings of the study have come as no surprise to some experts.

      Mark Peters, a senior tai chi instructor and executive committee member of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, told the BBC: “It is a low-impact exercise and movements are steady and circular, and in terms of physical rehab at a hospital, it is a graded exercise – meaning it builds up progressively as ability builds up.

      “Aerobics is high-impact but tai chi also increases heart rate and core strength, only with no impact problems.

      “The NHS are big advocates and I’ve been teaching tai chi for patient rehab to NHS staff for 10-to-15 years or more and run courses like how to use it for brain injury and stroke recovery. I’ve been involved in quite a lot of studies which show it helps rebuild brain pathways.”

      You may also be interested in:

      • Mums’ Down’s syndrome video goes viral
      • My hairstyle made me go bald
      • ‘I’ve been given my sight back’

        Des Quinn, chairman of the Fibromyalgia Association, told the BBC: “It is no surprise to us that tai chi can be of help to people with fibromyalgia.

        “There have been some pilot studies in the past that have suggested that it could benefit people with fibro. Its gentle approach to increasing activity is something that would be easier for sufferers than running, for example.

        “However, what works for one person will not necessarily work for another in the same way. Someone with fibromyalgia faces a journey to find a balance of treatments and changes that improves their own quality of life.

        “Increasing levels of activity is what we would tend to say when talking about exercise.”

        View comments

Tai chi recommended to fight fibromyalgia

Tai chi is as good as – or even better than – aerobic exercise for aiding people with the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, a study has suggested.

The US trial of 226 adults with the condition showed that those who practised the martial art improved significantly more than those doing aerobic exercise over a 24-week period.

Its low-impact movements mean people of any age or fitness level can take part.

Aerobic exercise is currently a standard treatment for the condition.

But some patients find it hard to do because their symptoms keep changing.

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body and can also lead to increased sensitivity to pain, fatigue, muscle stiffness, memory problems and sleeping difficulties.

Aerobic exercises such as walking, cycling and swimming, together with resistance and strengthening exercises, like lifting weights, are recommended to help people who have been diagnosed.

But this study, published in the British Medical Journal, says the findings suggest “it may be time to rethink what type of exercise is most effective for patients”.

“Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed non-drug treatment,” the authors said.

“This mind-body approach may be considered a therapeutic option in the multi-disciplinary management of fibromyalgia.”

  • Tai Chi study ‘could help people with dementia’
  • Lady Gaga halts tour due to ‘severe pain’
  • How I’ve learned to live in constant pain

    The adults taking part in the study had not participated in tai chi or other similar types of complementary and alternative medicine in the previous six months.

    Their average age was 52 they had suffered body pain for an average of nine years and 92% of participants were women, with 61% being white.

    They were each randomly assigned to either supervised aerobic exercise twice a week for 24 weeks or to one of four supervised tai chi sessions of 12 or 24 weeks, completed once or twice each week.

    Changes in their symptom scores were assessed at 12, 24 and 52 weeks and participants continued taking their regular medicines and made their usual visits to their doctors.

    Before embarking on the trial, members of the group had to fill in a questionnaire, scoring symptoms like pain intensity, physical function, fatigue, depression, anxiety and overall wellbeing.

    While scores improved in all areas, the combined tai chi patients showed significant improvement at the 24-week stage, although there was little difference whether they did it once or twice a week.

    The effects of tai chi were consistent across all the instructors and nobody suffered any serious adverse effects.

    The researchers did say there were some limitations in their study – participants were aware of their treatment group assignment and attendance at sessions differed between the two forms of exercise.

    However, they said that key strengths of their research were that it featured a large and diverse sample of people and had a longer follow-up than previous studies.


    A guide to tai chi

    • Tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with flowing movements
    • Studies have shown that it helps people aged 65 and over to reduce stress, improve posture, balance and mobility and increase leg muscle strength
    • Some research shows it can reduce the risk of falls
    • There is some evidence it can improve mobility in the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis
    • Nobody is too old or unfit to take up tai chi
    • Tai chi is characterised by its slow, graceful, continuous movements – many of which are completed with bent knees in a squat-like position

      Source: NHS Choices


      The findings of the study have come as no surprise to some experts.

      Mark Peters, a senior tai chi instructor and executive committee member of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, told the BBC: “It is a low-impact exercise and movements are steady and circular, and in terms of physical rehab at a hospital, it is a graded exercise – meaning it builds up progressively as ability builds up.

      “Aerobics is high-impact but tai chi also increases heart rate and core strength, only with no impact problems.

      “The NHS are big advocates and I’ve been teaching tai chi for patient rehab to NHS staff for 10-to-15 years or more and run courses like how to use it for brain injury and stroke recovery. I’ve been involved in quite a lot of studies which show it helps rebuild brain pathways.”

      You may also be interested in:

      • Mums’ Down’s syndrome video goes viral
      • My hairstyle made me go bald
      • ‘I’ve been given my sight back’

        Des Quinn, chairman of the Fibromyalgia Association, told the BBC: “It is no surprise to us that tai chi can be of help to people with fibromyalgia.

        “There have been some pilot studies in the past that have suggested that it could benefit people with fibro. Its gentle approach to increasing activity is something that would be easier for sufferers than running, for example.

        “However, what works for one person will not necessarily work for another in the same way. Someone with fibromyalgia faces a journey to find a balance of treatments and changes that improves their own quality of life.

        “Increasing levels of activity is what we would tend to say when talking about exercise.”

        View comments

The wearable brain scanner you can move around in

Scientists in Nottingham have invented a new type of brain scanner that can be worn on the head, allowing patients to move while being scanned.

The device records the tiny magnetic fields generated by the brain.

The researchers said it could revolutionise brain imaging.

Writing in Nature, they showed it could pinpoint the part of the brain responsible for activities like nodding, drinking tea and playing bat and ball.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) has been around for decades, but conventional scanners are large, weighing half a ton.

The sensors used to measure the brain’s magnetic fields have to be super-cooled to minus 269C.

The UK has 10 MEG scanners and their use is largely limited to research.

Part of the problem is that subjects have to keep completely still.

‘Behaving naturally’

The wearable MEG uses lightweight quantum sensors mounted in a 3D printed helmet.

The sensors work at room temperature and can be placed directly on the scalp, which greatly increases the signal they can pick up.

The wearable scanner means that babies, children and people with movement disorders can have their brain activity measured.

Matt Brookes, physicist, who leads the study at Nottingham University told me: “In terms of mapping brain activity, this represents a step change.

“Neuroscientists will be able to envisage a whole new world of experiments where we try to work out what the brain is doing but whilst a person is behaving naturally and moving around.”

Prof Gareth Barnes, who leads the project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London, told me: “For children with epilepsy, this technology will be incredibly beneficial.

Doctors can scan them while they are moving around and that’s never been done before.”

The researchers say that the wearable MEG scanner will also be useful in imaging patients with Parkinson’s disease.

All MEG has to be done in a special room which is shielded from much of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team at Nottingham created special electromagnetic coils, which they mounted on boards surrounding the scanner, to further reduce the effects of the Earth’s field around the scanner by a factor of around 50,000.

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and developed at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre in Nottingham.

Follow Fergus on Twitter

The wearable brain scanner you can move around in

Scientists in Nottingham have invented a new type of brain scanner that can be worn on the head, allowing patients to move while being scanned.

The device records the tiny magnetic fields generated by the brain.

The researchers said it could revolutionise brain imaging.

Writing in Nature, they showed it could pinpoint the part of the brain responsible for activities like nodding, drinking tea and playing bat and ball.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) has been around for decades, but conventional scanners are large, weighing half a ton.

The sensors used to measure the brain’s magnetic fields have to be super-cooled to minus 269C.

The UK has 10 MEG scanners and their use is largely limited to research.

Part of the problem is that subjects have to keep completely still.

‘Behaving naturally’

The wearable MEG uses lightweight quantum sensors mounted in a 3D printed helmet.

The sensors work at room temperature and can be placed directly on the scalp, which greatly increases the signal they can pick up.

The wearable scanner means that babies, children and people with movement disorders can have their brain activity measured.

Matt Brookes, physicist, who leads the study at Nottingham University told me: “In terms of mapping brain activity, this represents a step change.

“Neuroscientists will be able to envisage a whole new world of experiments where we try to work out what the brain is doing but whilst a person is behaving naturally and moving around.”

Prof Gareth Barnes, who leads the project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London, told me: “For children with epilepsy, this technology will be incredibly beneficial.

Doctors can scan them while they are moving around and that’s never been done before.”

The researchers say that the wearable MEG scanner will also be useful in imaging patients with Parkinson’s disease.

All MEG has to be done in a special room which is shielded from much of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team at Nottingham created special electromagnetic coils, which they mounted on boards surrounding the scanner, to further reduce the effects of the Earth’s field around the scanner by a factor of around 50,000.

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and developed at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre in Nottingham.

Follow Fergus on Twitter

The wearable brain scanner you can move around in

Scientists in Nottingham have invented a new type of brain scanner that can be worn on the head, allowing patients to move while being scanned.

The device records the tiny magnetic fields generated by the brain.

The researchers said it could revolutionise brain imaging.

Writing in Nature, they showed it could pinpoint the part of the brain responsible for activities like nodding, drinking tea and playing bat and ball.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) has been around for decades, but conventional scanners are large, weighing half a ton.

The sensors used to measure the brain’s magnetic fields have to be super-cooled to minus 269C.

The UK has 10 MEG scanners and their use is largely limited to research.

Part of the problem is that subjects have to keep completely still.

‘Behaving naturally’

The wearable MEG uses lightweight quantum sensors mounted in a 3D printed helmet.

The sensors work at room temperature and can be placed directly on the scalp, which greatly increases the signal they can pick up.

The wearable scanner means that babies, children and people with movement disorders can have their brain activity measured.

Matt Brookes, physicist, who leads the study at Nottingham University told me: “In terms of mapping brain activity, this represents a step change.

“Neuroscientists will be able to envisage a whole new world of experiments where we try to work out what the brain is doing but whilst a person is behaving naturally and moving around.”

Prof Gareth Barnes, who leads the project at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London, told me: “For children with epilepsy, this technology will be incredibly beneficial.

Doctors can scan them while they are moving around and that’s never been done before.”

The researchers say that the wearable MEG scanner will also be useful in imaging patients with Parkinson’s disease.

All MEG has to be done in a special room which is shielded from much of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team at Nottingham created special electromagnetic coils, which they mounted on boards surrounding the scanner, to further reduce the effects of the Earth’s field around the scanner by a factor of around 50,000.

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and developed at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre in Nottingham.

Follow Fergus on Twitter

What are opioids and what are the risks?

US President Donald Trump has announced measures to combat the country’s opioid crisis. But what are these drugs and why are they such a problem?

What are opioids?

Opioids are a group of drugs that range from codeine, to illegal drugs like heroin.

Prescription opioids are primarily used for pain relief.

They work by attaching to opioid receptors in your brain cells to release signals that block your perception of pain and boost your feelings of pleasure.

The strongest legal treatments are usually only available by prescription from a doctor and include:

Why are they so heavily prescribed in the US?

Unlike many European countries, the US does not have universal healthcare paid for by taxes.

Instead, Americans must get their own insurance – usually via an employer or the government.

Professor Judith Feinberg from the West Virginia University School of Medicine told the BBC that opioids are easy to prescribe, and for many poor people their insurance won’t pay for anything but a pill.

“Say you have a patient that’s 45 years old. They have lower back pain, you examine them, they have a muscle spasm.

“Really the best thing is physical therapy, but no one will pay for that. So doctors get very ready to pull out the prescription pad.”

  • Why opioids are such an American problem
  • Are we missing the real opioid drug crisis?

    Is this just a US problem?

    President Trump called the opioid epidemic a “national shame” in October and declared it a public health emergency.

    The figures in America are certainly stark.

    Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from opioid use, with figures recently showing a 30% increase in overdoses there in the last year.

    The country also gets 30 times more opioid pain relief medication than it needs.

    But there are fears that the problem could spread to other countries.

    In the UK the NHS has been accused of fuelling an “addiction crisis” after nearly 24 million opioids were prescribed in 2017 – 10 million more than in 2007.

    The UK government has ordered Public Health England to conduct a review of the scale and nature of the problem with prescription levels.

    But elsewhere millions of people in other parts of the world can’t get hold of the drugs.

    For example, Nigeria gets just 0.2% of what it needs, India 4%, China 16% and Mexico 36%.

    Diederik Lohman, from Human Rights Watch, said the tough international rhetoric on opioids has led in some countries to “opiophobia… an irrational fear around the use of these medications”.

What are opioids and what are the risks?

US President Donald Trump has announced measures to combat the country’s opioid crisis. But what are these drugs and why are they such a problem?

What are opioids?

Opioids are a group of drugs that range from codeine, to illegal drugs like heroin.

Prescription opioids are primarily used for pain relief.

They work by attaching to opioid receptors in your brain cells to release signals that block your perception of pain and boost your feelings of pleasure.

The strongest legal treatments are usually only available by prescription from a doctor and include:

Why are they so heavily prescribed in the US?

Unlike many European countries, the US does not have universal healthcare paid for by taxes.

Instead, Americans must get their own insurance – usually via an employer or the government.

Professor Judith Feinberg from the West Virginia University School of Medicine told the BBC that opioids are easy to prescribe, and for many poor people their insurance won’t pay for anything but a pill.

“Say you have a patient that’s 45 years old. They have lower back pain, you examine them, they have a muscle spasm.

“Really the best thing is physical therapy, but no one will pay for that. So doctors get very ready to pull out the prescription pad.”

  • Why opioids are such an American problem
  • Are we missing the real opioid drug crisis?

    Is this just a US problem?

    President Trump called the opioid epidemic a “national shame” in October and declared it a public health emergency.

    The figures in America are certainly stark.

    Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from opioid use, with figures recently showing a 30% increase in overdoses there in the last year.

    The country also gets 30 times more opioid pain relief medication than it needs.

    But there are fears that the problem could spread to other countries.

    In the UK the NHS has been accused of fuelling an “addiction crisis” after nearly 24 million opioids were prescribed in 2017 – 10 million more than in 2007.

    The UK government has ordered Public Health England to conduct a review of the scale and nature of the problem with prescription levels.

    But elsewhere millions of people in other parts of the world can’t get hold of the drugs.

    For example, Nigeria gets just 0.2% of what it needs, India 4%, China 16% and Mexico 36%.

    Diederik Lohman, from Human Rights Watch, said the tough international rhetoric on opioids has led in some countries to “opiophobia… an irrational fear around the use of these medications”.

Macular degeneration: ‘I’ve been given my sight back’

Doctors have taken a major step towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK – age-related macular degeneration.

Douglas Waters, 86, could not see out of his right eye, but “I can now read the newspaper” with it, he says.

He was one of two patients given pioneering stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

Cells from a human embryo were grown into a patch that was delicately inserted into the back of the eye.

‘Couldn’t see anything’

Douglas, who is from London, developed severe age-related macular degeneration in his right eye three years ago.

The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead – whether to recognise faces, watch TV or read a book.

He says: “In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye.

“It’s brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back.”

The macula is made up of rods and cones that sense light and behind those are a layer of nourishing cells called the retinal pigment epithelium.

When this support layer fails, it causes macular degeneration and blindness.

Doctors have devised a way of building a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye.

The technique, published in Nature Biotechnology, starts with embryonic stem cells. These are a special type of cell that can become any other in the human body.

They are converted into the type of cell that makes up the retinal pigment epithelium and embedded into a scaffold to hold them in place.

The living patch is only one layer of cells thick – about 40 microns – and 6mm long and 4mm wide.

It is then placed underneath the rods and cones in the back of the eye. The operation takes up to two hours.

‘Incredibly exciting’

Prof Lyndon da Cruz, consultant retinal surgeon at Moorfields, told the BBC: “We’ve restored vision where there was none.

“It’s incredibly exciting. As you get older, parts of you stop working and for the first time we’ve been able to take a cell and make it into a specific part of the eye that’s failing and put it back in the eye and get vision back.”

However, he does not call this a “cure” as completely normal vision is not restored.

Only one diseased eye was operated on in each patient.

So far the patients, the other is a woman in her early sixties, have maintained improved vision in the treated eye for a year.

They went from not being able to read with their affected eye at all, to reading 60 to 80 words per minute.

Eight more patients will take part in this clinical trial.

Doctors need to be sure it is safe. One concern is the transplanted cells could become cancerous, although there have been no such signs so far.

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  • UK teacher wins global best teacher prize

    Prof Pete Coffey, from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, said: “This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine.

    “We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years.”

    More than 600,000 people have age-related macular degeneration in the UK. It’s the leading cause of blindness and the third globally.

    Both patients in the trial had “wet” age-related macular degeneration.

    This form of the disease is caused by abnormal blood vessels growing through the retinal pigment epithelium and damaging the macula.

    Dry age-related macular degeneration is more common and caused by the retinal pigment epithelium breaking down.

    It is hoped the patch will be able to treat both forms of the disease.

    Dr Carmel Toomes, from Leeds Institutes of Molecular Medicine, said: “What’s exciting about this study is that the patients recorded an increase in vision.

    “To see an improvement is a good sign that this therapy may help patients in the future, although further studies are needed before real conclusions can be drawn.”

    Follow James on Twitter.

    View comments

Macular degeneration: ‘I’ve been given my sight back’

Doctors have taken a major step towards curing the most common form of blindness in the UK – age-related macular degeneration.

Douglas Waters, 86, could not see out of his right eye, but “I can now read the newspaper” with it, he says.

He was one of two patients given pioneering stem cell therapy at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

Cells from a human embryo were grown into a patch that was delicately inserted into the back of the eye.

‘Couldn’t see anything’

Douglas, who is from London, developed severe age-related macular degeneration in his right eye three years ago.

The macula is the part of the eye that allows you to see straight ahead – whether to recognise faces, watch TV or read a book.

He says: “In the months before the operation my sight was really poor and I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye.

“It’s brilliant what the team have done and I feel so lucky to have been given my sight back.”

The macula is made up of rods and cones that sense light and behind those are a layer of nourishing cells called the retinal pigment epithelium.

When this support layer fails, it causes macular degeneration and blindness.

Doctors have devised a way of building a new retinal pigment epithelium and surgically implanting it into the eye.

The technique, published in Nature Biotechnology, starts with embryonic stem cells. These are a special type of cell that can become any other in the human body.

They are converted into the type of cell that makes up the retinal pigment epithelium and embedded into a scaffold to hold them in place.

The living patch is only one layer of cells thick – about 40 microns – and 6mm long and 4mm wide.

It is then placed underneath the rods and cones in the back of the eye. The operation takes up to two hours.

‘Incredibly exciting’

Prof Lyndon da Cruz, consultant retinal surgeon at Moorfields, told the BBC: “We’ve restored vision where there was none.

“It’s incredibly exciting. As you get older, parts of you stop working and for the first time we’ve been able to take a cell and make it into a specific part of the eye that’s failing and put it back in the eye and get vision back.”

However, he does not call this a “cure” as completely normal vision is not restored.

Only one diseased eye was operated on in each patient.

So far the patients, the other is a woman in her early sixties, have maintained improved vision in the treated eye for a year.

They went from not being able to read with their affected eye at all, to reading 60 to 80 words per minute.

Eight more patients will take part in this clinical trial.

Doctors need to be sure it is safe. One concern is the transplanted cells could become cancerous, although there have been no such signs so far.

You may also be interested in:

  • Mums’ Down’s syndrome video goes viral
  • Essential oils ‘make male breasts develop’
  • UK teacher wins global best teacher prize

    Prof Pete Coffey, from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, said: “This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine.

    “We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years.”

    More than 600,000 people have age-related macular degeneration in the UK. It’s the leading cause of blindness and the third globally.

    Both patients in the trial had “wet” age-related macular degeneration.

    This form of the disease is caused by abnormal blood vessels growing through the retinal pigment epithelium and damaging the macula.

    Dry age-related macular degeneration is more common and caused by the retinal pigment epithelium breaking down.

    It is hoped the patch will be able to treat both forms of the disease.

    Dr Carmel Toomes, from Leeds Institutes of Molecular Medicine, said: “What’s exciting about this study is that the patients recorded an increase in vision.

    “To see an improvement is a good sign that this therapy may help patients in the future, although further studies are needed before real conclusions can be drawn.”

    Follow James on Twitter.

    View comments

Stem cell transplant ‘game changer’ for MS patients

Doctors say a stem cell transplant could be a “game changer” for many patients with multiple sclerosis.

Results from an international trial show that it was able to stop the disease and improve symptoms.

It involves wiping out a patient’s immune system using cancer drugs and then rebooting it with a stem cell transplant.

Louise Willetts, 36, from Rotherham, is now symptom-free and told me: “It feels like a miracle.”

A total of 100,000 people in the UK have MS, which attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

Just over 100 patients took part in the trial, in hospitals in Chicago, Sheffield, Uppsala in Sweden and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

They all had relapsing remitting MS – where attacks or relapses are followed by periods of remission.

The interim results were released at the annual meeting of the European Society for Bone and Marrow Transplantation in Lisbon.

The patients received either haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or drug treatment.

After one year, only one relapse occurred among the stem cell group compared with 39 in the drug group.

After an average follow-up of three years, the transplants had failed in three out of 52 patients (6%), compared with 30 of 50 (60%) in the control group.

Those in the transplant group experienced a reduction in disability, whereas symptoms worsened in the drug group.

Prof Richard Burt, lead investigator, Northwestern University Chicago, told me: “The data is stunningly in favour of transplant against the best available drugs – the neurological community has been sceptical about this treatment, but these results will change that.”


Multiple sclerosis

  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition which can affect the brain and/or spinal cord
  • It can cause problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance
  • Average life expectancy is slightly reduced
  • It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 people diagnosed with MS in the UK

    Source: NHS


    The treatment uses chemotherapy to destroy the faulty immune system.

    Stem cells taken from the patient’s blood and bone marrow are then re-infused.

    These are unaffected by MS and they rebuild the immune system.

    Prof John Snowden, haematologist and director of blood and bone marrow transplantation at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, told me: “We are thrilled with the results – they are a game changer for patients with drug resistant and disabling multiple sclerosis”.

    Prof Basil Sharrack, neurologist and director of MS research at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, told me: “This is interim analysis, but with that caveat, this is the best result I have seen in any trial for multiple sclerosis.”

    ‘Lived in fear’

    Louise was diagnosed with MS in 2010 when she was only 28.

    She told me: “MS ruled my life and I lived in fear of the next relapse.

    “The worst time was not being able to get out of bed because I had no stability in my body – I struggled to walk and even spent time in a wheelchair.

    “It also affected my cognition – it was like a brain fog and I misread words and struggled to keep up with conversations.”

    The BBC’s Panorama filmed her undergoing her transplant in October 2015 and she is now back to full health.

    She got married to her partner Steve, on the first anniversary of her transplant, and their baby daughter Joy is now a month old.

    “I feel like my diagnosis was just a bad dream. I live every day as I want to, rather than planning my life around my MS.”

    The transplant costs around £30,000, about the same as the annual price of some MS drugs.

    Doctors stress it is not suitable for all MS patients and the process can be gruelling, involving chemotherapy and a few weeks in isolation in hospital.

    Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at the MS Society, said the stem cell transplant HSCT “will soon be recognised as an established treatment in England – and when that happens our priority will be making sure those who could benefit can actually get it”.

    She added: “We’ve seen life-changing results for some people and having that opportunity can’t depend on your postcode.”

    Follow Fergus on Twitter.

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