Jennifer Molson was 21, juggling a day job and night school to pursue her dream of becoming a cop, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She woke up one morning with pins and needles in her hand, and within a week she couldn't move her left arm.But the treatment is not simple, and it killed at least one of the patients:
By 2001, five years later, she was living in the Ottawa Hospital under 24-hour care, getting around using a cane, walker, or wheelchair. When she was discharged on weekends, to spend time with her then-boyfriend Aaron, she had to rely on him for her every need. He'd cut her food into bite-size pieces, and bathe and dress her. When she lost control of her bladder or bowel, he'd help her go to the bathroom.
"I had no feeling from the chest down," Molson says. "I could touch something boiling on the stove and burn myself. I could touch fabric without knowing whether it's sandpaper." For patients like Molson, with a severe form of MS and no response to the available medications, there’s little hope.
Two years later, her life had taken an abrupt turn. "I walked down the aisle and danced at my wedding, something I had always dreamed of doing," she said of her marriage to Aaron in 2003.
Now, 15 years later, Molson is still skiing and kayaking on the weekends. She works as a research assistant at Ottawa Hospital.
Once she was accepted into the study, doctors began the procedure. They first put her through a short course of chemotherapy to stimulate the production of hematopoietic stem cells, which regenerate the immune system, in her blood. They then hooked her up to a machine that cycled through her blood 32 times over the course of seven hours, in order to collect stem cells. Those stem cells were then purified, wiped of any memory of the disease, to later be transplanted into Molson through a blood transfusion.Plus the immune systems of the patients were permanently compromised. But progressive MS is a grim way to die, so most patients would probably choose ten days of hell and a lifetime of lesser problems.
The most trying part of the treatment: Molson had to endure 10 days of chemotherapy. The doctors were essentially killing off her diseased immune system, only to later replace it with a new one in the form of her own purified stem cells. But the experience was grueling. Molson likened it to "hell."
There were only 24 people in the study, and besides the one who died in treatment seven others weren't helped at all; in eight the progress of the disease was halted, but they did not recover; eight showed significant improvement. Very promising, though.