Just before COVID-19 shut borders, one Australian with MS flew to Russia for a stem cell transplant.
Travelled to Russia for a “life-changing” treatment
Just one day before WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, Brisbane dad Michael Jones landed in Moscow for treatment he hoped would halt his Multiple Sclerosis.
“In Queensland particularly [COVID-19] wasn’t that severe. We were at about 20 cases when I made the call to jump.”
The treatment Michael travelled overseas for has been very successful in clinical trials, especially for young patients with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis – but isn’t widely available anywhere in the world.
But at Moscow’s AA Maximov hospital, one doctor has been opening his doors to patients from around the world.
Dr Denis Fedorenko is a Russian haematologist who’s revered by the thousands of Multiple Sclerosis sufferers he’s treated.
“All patients understand that this is not 100% successful treatment. They know statistic and unfortunately sometimes disease comes back, but we try to do the best.”
Around a thousand foreign patients have received stem cell transplants in Moscow – each paying around AU$80,000.
More than 200 of them come from Australia – often after months of online fundraising. The treatment leaves them with a severely compromised immune system and a long road to recovery ahead of them.
Straight out of treatment and finding himself stuck in Moscow with almost no immunity, Michael had to figure out a way to get home.
An experimental treatment
MS is an auto-immune disease, which means you immune system doesn’t just defend you from infections – it attacks healthy cells.
No one knows why it happens, but it causes nerve damage that distorts messages from the brain to the rest of the body, sometimes leading to severe disability.
There’s no known cure, but autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT) is very effective at halting the progress of MS in some patients.
Chemotherapy wipes out the overactive immune cells seen in Multiple Sclerosis, before some of the patient’s own blood-forming stem cells, extracted from bone marrow before treatment, are reinfused. These cells reset the immune system so that it no longer attacks the central nervous system.
In Australia, clinical trials of AHSCT have been very promising, but only accept people who’ve failed to respond to multiple drug treatments.
Even in Russia, there’s resistance to stem cell transplants as a first-line of treatment for MS patients – it’s only available free to a handful of Russians enrolled in clinical trials.
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