Perhaps the most promise for a "cure" points to stem-cell research. The scientists who called the last century "the century of the gene" - beginning with the discovery of DNA and ending with full mapping of the human genome - now say we are in the "century of the cell and its self-renewal." And that is very promising for people not only with multiple sclerosis (MS), but with Parkinson's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, ALS, traumatic spinal cord injury, Purkinje cell degeneration, Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, heart disease, and vision and hearing loss. These, and so many other diseases, we now know, are not the result of a simple microbe or even an individual genetic alteration, but rather the loss of very specific cells.
If you add all the diseases together, we're talking about tens of millions of individuals who have health care needs largely unmet by current medical strategies. This is expected to have a tremendous impact not only on quality of life, but health care costs and overall productivity of our economy. And that's why there's so much incentive to see if the early promise of stem-cell research can be fulfilled.
The hope is that stem cells might be transplanted to target specific cells. In heart disease, stem cells might help grow new heart muscle. In diabetes, stem cells might be transplanted to replace the ones which produce insulin. In the case of MS, the cell that is lost is the oligodendrocyte which helps make myelin. In MS, stem-cell research will try to promote the growth of new myelin, repair damaged cells, or modify the immune system to replace cells that attack myelin. Some research might lead to the development of drugs that could recruit a person's own stem cells to a specific area in the body that needs repair.