Up to 150,000 people in Britain suffer from Crohn’s disease, a painful and chronic intestinal disorder which is thought to be caused by an abnormal immune reaction to gut bacteria.
The new treatment aims to reset a patient’s immune system so it no longer sees the gut as an enemy to attack, “curing” them of the condition.
Now a £2million trial funded by the National Institute of Health Research will be launched at eight leading UK hospitals, following the success of earlier patient tests.
Lead research investigator Professor James Lindsay said: “I am very excited about the chance of resetting the faulty immune system for those whose lives have been devastated by this disease.
“Research by colleagues in the UK has shown that this technique may also benefit other long term auto-immune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.”
Prof Lindsay, a leading gut expert at London’s Barts Health NHS Trust, added: “This could transform the lives of thousands of patients for whom existing treatments have failed.”
The new technique involves harvesting a patient’s stem cells, which are then stored.
The next step is to destroy their current immune system, using chemotherapy drugs.
It starts with the patient being given drugs to encourage stem cells to “migrate” from the bone marrow to the bloodstream where they can be collected.
The person’s immune system is then removed with the chemotherapy drugs and the stored stem cells are returned into a vein.
The stem cells then replicate, allowing a “renewed” immune system.
Patients must stay in hospital for up to six weeks to protect them from infection.
The multi-centre trial is to be carried out at on 100 patients who have failed to respond to existing therapies.
Current treatments for Crohn’s include steroids and targeted “biologic drugs” to suppress the immune system – or in some cases, surgery to remove affected parts of the digestive tract.
But for thousands of patients, the treatment fails to help and they are unable to lead a normal life as a result of debilitating symptoms including diarrhoea, abdominal pain and extreme tiredness.
In separate research, patients with multiple sclerosis have been treated successfully with a similar technique.
Treatment is nothing short of a miracle, claims Charlotte
CHARLOTTE Howe, 35, who suffered extreme Crohn’s symptoms, was on a preliminary stem cell trial conducted at London’s Barts Health NHS Trust four years ago – and has not had symptoms since finishing treatment. She said: “It is nothing short of a miracle.
“For all my 20s I had to deal with having Crohn’s. It totally dominated, affecting my work and social life.”
Not long after first being diagnosed with the disease at just 20, in her first year of university, Crohn’s almost cost Charlotte, of Surbiton, Surrey, her life.
“I was having acute pain and the doctors weren’t able to find out why it was so bad,” she said.
“A consultant gastroenterologist found my large bowel was so ulcerated it was about to perforate. I had emergency surgery to remove it. “But the Crohn’s came back with a vengeance and life was hell for seven years until I was referred to the stem cell trial by my consultant.”
Charlotte underwent two courses of chemotherapy before being infused with her own stem cells that had been stored in a laboratory.
She said: “After a couple of months I had very few symptoms and by six months I was off all my medications. The disease has taken a large chunk of my life and I am so grateful to have got on the trial and to have been cured.”