World-first clinical trial shows promising results

A Queensland-based trial to treat multiple sclerosis has improved lives

A world-first clinical trial based on research by UQ's Professor Michael Pender has improved the symptoms and quality of life for those living with multiple sclerosis (MS).

The trial, which was only possible thanks to generous philanthropic support provided through MS Queensland, delivered a treatment called cellular immunotherapy designed to target the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Louise Remmerswaal, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November 2001, took part in the trial and says the treatment has changed her life.

“I have progressive MS so my future was not very bright — there were no treatments,” she said.

“But with what I have experienced with Professor Pender’s trial, I am very hopeful that I have a longer and brighter future.”

MS is a common neurological disease affecting more than 23,000 Australians and early-onset cases like Louise Remmerswaal's are surprisingly common.

“Prior to being diagnosed I was a very fit and strong young mum of two girls and I would go to the gym three or four times a week,” Mrs Remmerswaal said.

“After my diagnosis, I went from being able to walk, to requiring a stick, to being in a wheelchair within three years.”

Since participating in the trial, Mrs Remmerswaal said that all of her major symptoms had dramatically improved

“Simply sitting in a chair and having to look up at someone would make me dizzy and physically sick before,” Mrs Remmerswaal said. 

“Even the process of moving into bed and laying back on a pillow would leave my head spinning. 

“Before the trial, my fatigue was also so bad that I could not go out in the evenings.

“But, my vertigo has gone and my fatigue has improved since the trial.”

The treatment Remmerswaal received was based on a theory by Professor Michael Pender that MS resulted from an accumulation of EBV-infected cells in the brain. 

He suggested that a cellular immunology therapy targeting EBV could stop the progression of the disease.

The treatment was developed by a team at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute led by Professor Rajiv Khanna. The phase I clinical trial was conducted by both Professors Pender and Khanna in collaboration with colleagues at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH).

Professor Pender said 10 patients – five with secondary progressive MS and five with primary progressive MS – received four doses of the treatment at RBWH.

“Seven of these patients showed improvements,” Professor Pender said. 

“Without this treatment, we would have expected their symptoms to continue to get worse.

“Improvements ranged from reduced fatigue and improved productivity and quality of life to improvements in vision and mobility.

“Importantly, we found the treatment was safe and without serious side-effects.

“Our findings add to the mounting evidence that EBV infection plays a role in the development of MS.”

The results of the clinical trial have been published in JCI Insight.

Remmerswaal said the clinical trial had returned her dignity and hope for the future. 

“As an adult, you want to be dignified, you want to be social and feel like everybody else — not hidden away in your house,” she said. 

“I felt very honoured to be one of Professor Penders’ patients and when I heard about the trial I was very excited.

“I have hope for the future, now; I hope to live long enough and be healthy enough to potentially cradle one of my grandchildren in my arms.”

Professor Pender said this research would not have been possible without philanthropic support from MS Queensland and a number of Queensland-based donors. 

“Philanthropic funding from MS Queensland and other donors played an essential role in supporting this research. Without this support the clinical trial would not have happened,” he said. 

“My research team and I are forever grateful for the support we received to push this research forward to help those living with MS and their families. 

Professor Pender said more support was needed to keep these clinical trials running in Queensland and progress them to the next stage. 

“The only way our team can remain at the forefront of this field is by continuing to participate in clinical trials for this MS research. This will not be possible without philanthropic funding.”

You too can support this important research to address the cause of MS, and gifts of any size are appreciated and put to good use. Please consider helping address the cause of MS by making a donation via the ‘give now’ button below — 100 per cent of donations go towards the cause.

Help support the development of this treatment for multiple sclerosis and keep clinical trials in Queensland.