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Wednesday

 

Finding Hope: Lakeland Woman Recovering From Experimental Treatment for MS




































The scariest moment for Kristan Baker came one day last fall as she walked through a Target store holding hands with her toddler son, Nolen. Baker lost her balance and tumbled down face-first, dragging Nolen with her.

Such accidents are a constant possibility for Baker, who was diagnosed 11 years ago with multiple sclerosis. The Lakeland resident has seen her physical decline accelerate since she gave birth to Nolen nearly four years ago.

Baker, 34, has gone from racing in triathlons to worrying she won't be able to catch up to her 1-year-old son, Lincoln, if he dashes toward the street.

"I've got numbness over about 75 percent of my body, and what I feel isn't normal," Baker said. "My feet either feel like they're on fire or they're soggy sponges. I feel like I'm walking on rocks some times. Touch with cold hands takes my breath away; it's painful."

There is no known cure for MS, an autoimmune disease in which the nerves of the brain and spinal cord degenerate, causing a progressive loss of bodily control. Yet Baker is in the midst of an experimental treatment she hopes will halt her decline.

Baker expects to return home today following treatment at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine that involved chemotherapy and a transplant of her own stem cells. Richard K. Burt, a doctor at the school's Division of Immunotherapy and Autoimmune Diseases has pioneered the protocol, now in the third phase of a clinical trial, to treat multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders.

The treatment essentially resets the patient's immune system to the way it worked before the onset of multiple sclerosis.

"I've never been filled with so much hope and excitement," Baker said at home in early June before returning to Chicago for the second round of treatment. "I'm nervous about what's to come, but I'm just so excited to get my life back and move on disease-free."

The treatment regimen is similar to one used for decades to treat leukemia and other cancers. In the first phase, the patient receives low-dose chemotherapy to "mobilize" their stem cells, which are then extracted from the patient's blood. After a week of rest, the patient returns for six days of high-dose chemotherapy before the harvested stem cells are infused back into the patient's bloodstream.

Baker said the chemotherapy is what makes Northwestern's treatment innovative. The powerful drugs decimate the faulty immune system, and the infusion of stem cells accelerates the building of a new immune system.

The best available drugs for treating MS only offer the prospect of slowing the disease's progression for some patients. Since being diagnosed at age 23, Baker has tried various medications without any positive effects. Before learning of the clinical trial, her future seemed inevitable: continuing physical and cognitive decline and eventual use of a walker, if not a wheelchair.

Baker traveled to Chicago in May for the first segment of the treatment, done on an outpatient basis. She said Burt's team had harvested 16 million stem cells through a process called pheresis.

After a week in Lakeland, she returned to Chicago and underwent six days of preparation, including additional chemotherapy, before undergoing the stem-cell transplant June 18.

Dr. Burt, chief of Northwestern's Division of Immunotherapy, performed the first hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) for a multiple sclerosis patient in 1996. In a paper published January, Burt reported that 87 percent of patients in the trial's second phase had continued remission four years after treatment.

FINDING HOPE

Baker, a veterinary technician specialist before becoming a stay-at-home mother, learned about the treatment option by chance. Last November, a friend in one of her online MS support groups posted about her plans to travel to Russia for HCST treatment. Unfamiliar with the acronym, Baker did a Google search on her smartphone as she sat in bed with her sons.

When she found the website for the Northwestern program, an unexpected source of hope arose.

"Both of my boys were lying in bed napping, and I started crying and shaking just reading about how successful this was — and I'd never even heard of it," Baker said.

Her excitement grew as she read about other MS patients who had used wheelchairs before the treatment and were now walking again.

The Northwestern program only accepts patients who have failed to show improvement with medications and are in the "relapsing-remitting" stage of MS. Those in the more advanced progressive stage, which often occurs within 10 years of diagnosis, are not eligible.

Baker applied in late November and was invited to Chicago for an evaluation. After testing in February, Baker learned she didn't meet the strict criteria for the clinical trial, but she said Burt offered to treat her on a compassionate basis.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by THELEDGER
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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