The Ottawa Hospital leads first Canadian clinical trial of mesenchymal stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis

January 29, 2015

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation announced today a $4.2 million grant to support the first Canadian clinical trial of mesenchymal stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis (MS), led by Dr. Mark S. Freedman of The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa.

Mesenchymal stem cells, which are also called mesenchymal stromal cells or MSCs, can be found in adult bone marrow, fat and skin tissue, as well as umbilical cord blood. Like other kinds of stem cells, MSCs can give rise to other more specialized types of cells, however their therapeutic potential comes more from their ability to modify the immune system, reduce inflammation and release factors that help prevent and repair tissue damage.

The trial, called MESCAMS (MEsenchymal Stem cell therapy for CAnadian MS patients) will evaluate the safety and potential benefits of MSCs that have been extracted from the participant’s own bone marrow, expanded in a specialized laboratory and then infused back into the same participant.

“Previous clinical trials have shown that mesenchymal stem cell therapy is well-tolerated in humans, and there are some preliminary signs of effectiveness in other diseases,” said Dr. Freedman, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Research Unit at The Ottawa Hospital, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and professor of neurology at the University of Ottawa. “I’m very excited to be leading this study, which will provide more definitive answers for people living with multiple sclerosis.”

In addition to The Ottawa Hospital, MESCAMS will also be taking place at Health Sciences Centre (HSC) Winnipeg under the leadership of Dr. James J. Marriott of the University of Manitoba. MESCAMS is also part of a larger, international research effort studying MSCs, led by Dr. Freedman and Dr. A. Uccelli of Genoa, Italy. The international effort will allow scientific resources and expertise to be pooled from nine countries worldwide. This effort will also assist in developing an international consensus on safe protocols for MSC therapy. MESCAMS aims to recruit 40 patients (20 at each Canadian site), which represents 25 percent of participants in the international collaboration. The Ottawa site has received ethics and regulatory approval, and is screening patients for recruitment.

Participants in MESCAMS will be randomized to two groups: one group will receive their own MSCs soon after they are extracted, expanded in the laboratory and frozen, while the other group will initially receive a mock solution, and will then receive their previously frozen MSCs 24 weeks later. Neither the researchers nor the participants will know which group the participant is in. This is done to determine if any effects observed are due to the MSCs or to a placebo effect.

Margo Murchison, a former teacher in Ottawa, has been living with MS for more than 30 years.
“I have great hope for this research, and for MS research in general,” said Ms. Murchison. “Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen so many new developments in MS treatment and I’ve been able to participate in several clinical trials. I really do feel like we’re getting closer to a cure, and I believe that people who are diagnosed with MS today will have many more options than I did.”

Dr. Freedman and his colleague Dr. Harry Atkins, a bone marrow transplant specialist and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, have also pioneered a different kind of stem cell therapy for MS that uses hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) to replace the patient’s defective immune system with a healthy new one. The procedure involves purifying and freezing HSCs from the patient’s blood, then using strong chemotherapy to completely eliminate the patient’s defective immune system. The patient then receives an infusion of their own, previously frozen HSCs, which gives rise to a new, healthy immune system 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 Dr. Freedman. “On the other hand, we really don’t know what the effect of mesenchymal stem cell therapy will be in people with MS. 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.”

For a detailed comparison of these two kinds of stem cell therapies for MS, please see the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s website. People with MS who are interested in novel treatment options should speak with their neurologist.

The grant announced today by the MS Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation for MESCAMS is also supported by Research Manitoba ($1.5 million) and A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. ($1 million). The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation have also provided crucial support for the specialized laboratory used to process MSCs at The Ottawa Hospital.

“The Ottawa Hospital is delighted to sponsor and support this innovative clinical trial,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, vice-president of research at The Ottawa Hospital, CEO and scientific director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. “MESCAMS is one of a number of novel cell-based therapies that we are exploring for the treatment of devastating diseases.”

“The MS Society of Canada is proud to be investing in the first Canadian clinical trial studying the ability of mesenchymal stem cells to treat multiple sclerosis,” said Yves Savoie, president and CEO, MS Society of Canada. “As Canada has the highest rate of the MS in the world, we are excited that Canadian researchers are among the leaders in developing a novel and effective cell-based treatment for individuals with all forms of this unpredictable disease – which would be a major breakthrough in the MS research community.”

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with its faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute includes more than 1,700 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. Support our research. Give to the Tender Loving Research campaign.

About multiple sclerosis, the MS Society of Canada and the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation
Canada has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis in the world. MS is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system comprising the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. It is one of the most common neurological diseases affecting young adults in Canada. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 40, and the unpredictable effects of MS last for the rest of their lives. The MS Society provides services to people with MS and their families and funds research to find the cause and cure for this disease. The Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation funds large, innovative, multi-centre collaborative studies that will lead to major advances in the field of MS. A unique Canadian resource, the Foundation’s main funding source is the MS Society of Canada. Please visit or call 1-800-268-7582 to make a donation or for more information.

Media contacts:

Jennifer Ganton
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
613-798-5555 x 73325
613-614-5253 (cell)

Lindsay Gulin
MS Society of Canada
416-922-6600 ext. 3245

David Hultin
HSC Winnipeg

Kristen Hooper
Research Manitoba