There are plenty of circumstances of serendipity in the natural world and in our lives. I've blogged about coincidence and synchronicity before, but a recent news release has got me thinking about it again and the added feature of serendipity. This time it's how it relates to medicine.
A lot of discoveries are made by "accident". Some of the more famous ones include X-rays, pennicillan, and LSD.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend an information breakfast sponsored by the MS Society. The guest speaker was Dr. Mark Freedman (a great speaker), who is an MS researcher in Ottawa and is leading an ongoing study which intended to observe how MS begins in the first place. Sadly the experiment was a failure. He talked about the study at the breakfast and was very excited about its failure. Just recently Dr. Freedman addressed a stem cell seminar at the US Institutes of Health. After 7 years, the researchers still don't know what they had set out to know. What they did was chemically destroy the immune systems of MS patients. Then the patients received a transplant of their own stem cells which had been harvested in the weeks before destruction. The basic hypothesis was that the immune system would be rebooted and MS relapses would occur, allowing the researchers to watch the disease evolve. But it hasn't happened. Actually, none of the 17 patients have exhibited any relapses.
A very nice failure. 7 years and no relapses. Wait a minute...these were folks with pretty debilitating MS, the disease was progressing, and it suddenly stops? Repair has been observed and no new lesions are presenting. Now before you get all excited about a possible cure, this is an ongoing study with only 17 patients. The treatment involves one similar to what leukemia patients go through, with chemo to destroy their own bone marrow before receiving a transplant. In fact, one person in this study died after the chemo and before he could receive his own stem cells back and all patients in the study knew this was a possible outcome. All the patients must be extremely brave to have put themselves on the line the way they have.
So now the researchers are focusing their studies on if this is an effective way to stop or slow MS.
Could stem cell replacement or transplant be a cure for MS? It's a very definite possiblity right now. But it's still a long way off to treat the disease. The docs still don't know how MS evolves, but the failure of the study may have led to an accidental discovery. Serendipity in action. Cool.