Initial findings from the world’s first controlled trial of the procedure have raised hopes that it could banish the disease’s symptoms for many years in up to half of the patients who undergo it.
The pioneering therapy involves “rebooting” the patient’s immune system, by first destroying the cells that have attacked it to cause the Crohn’s, and then replacing them.
Professor Chris Hawkey, a gastroenterologist at Nottingham University, is leading the Autologous Stem Cell Transplantation in Crohn’s Disease (Astic) trial. So far, 15 patients from six European countries, including three Britons, have taken part, though others are being recruited.
“I’m hopeful that half or more of the patients who undergo stem cell transplantation may either be cured or have a long-term remission,” said Hawkey.
Hawkey, other specialist doctors and patients involved in the trial will tomorrow meet the chancellor, Alastair Darling, to press for the NHS to offer better treatment across the UK to the estimated 60,000 people who have Crohn’s and the 140,000 who suffer from colitis.
Crohn’s is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that causes ulceration and inflammation of the digestive tract. Existing treatments all involve drugs, which help sufferers to control their symptoms, but do not offer a cure. It wrecks lives because its embarrassing and painful symptoms – including diarrhoea, stomach pains, fatigue and weight loss – can mean that those with the most severe form of Crohn’s find it hard to go to school or college, hold down a job or plan a holiday.
The stem cell treatment, which takes two years, is very painful for patients, and involves risks including bleeding, infection and a 1%-2% chance of death. The stem cell transplantation is used to kill off the patient’s old bone marrow, which produces the harmful cells that cause the Crohn’s, and generate new cells.