More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Stem cells used to treat Crohn's

August 7, 2001

The first stem-cell transplant to treat Crohn's disease appears to be working, said a doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where the procedure was performed 10 weeks ago.

The results were encouraging enough that the hospital performed a second transplant on a 16-year-old boy Monday.

The first patient, 22-year-old Joy Weiss, who lives near Bangor, Maine, had suffered from Crohn's disease since she was a child. Her white blood cells were assaulting her digestive system as if they were an invading army of infectious bacteria.

"My body rejects my stomach and there's nothing I can do," Weiss told her hometown newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, before the transplant.

Many with the autoimmune disorder live relatively normal lives. For others, it can be fatal.

Weiss' disease, which affects more than 50,000 Americans, had progressed to the point where she had to have morphine pumped into her spine to control the pain. Another line carried nutrients into her bloodstream because she was unable to digest food. She had also endured chronic diarrhea, her weight was down to 80 pounds and she faced a colostomy.

"We've been in and out of hospitals so many times, it's a blur," said her mother, Barbara, who is a registered nurse.

But after the stem cell transplant, her Crohn's symptoms have gone and her digestive system appears to be recovering, said Dr. Richard Burt, who performed the procedure.

"She's failed everything out there that's available, and now two and a half months after the transplant, she's had no diarrhea and no abdominal pain," said Burt, who is chief of the hospital's division of Immune Therapy and Autoimmune Diseases.

"It's gone as good as we could have wished for so far," he said.

Weiss' procedure involved the use of her own body's blood stem cells, which are different from the more controversial embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells can potentially grow any type of cells, such as those that make up heart, lung and brain tissue. Blood stem cells can be building blocks only for cells that circulate through the blood, such as white blood cells that attack infections.

Weiss' own stem cells could be used to grow new cells for her immune system--hopefully ones that would not attack her own body.

But first her faulty immune system had to be destroyed, using powerful chemotherapy drugs. Then stem cells that had been previously removed from Weiss were injected back into her bloodstream.

They "headed home" to the bone marrow and immediately began producing new immune system cells, Burt said.

The most dangerous period was the two weeks before Weiss' new immune system began to take hold, when she had to be kept in sterile conditions to avoid exposure to an infection she had no power to fight against. In rare cases that period can prove fatal, but the worst Weiss suffered was a couple of days of fever.

Burt describes the process as a way of resetting the immune system.

"A lot of these people weren't born this way; they spend 20 to 40 years of their life without anything happening," he said. "So what we're doing is just letting it start back over as if they were reborn."

It's too soon to say whether the process is even a possible cure. But similar procedures have been used successfully to treat another autoimmune disease, lupus.

Burt has also had promising results treating multiple sclerosis with a similar process.

In the case of Crohn's disease, "We would have to follow a patient for at least five years," Burt said.

Copyright 2000, Digital Chicago Inc.