Stem cell treatment was never going to be a quick-fix solution for the debilitating neurological disease, multiple sclerosis, but almost a year after the surgery which involved huge bouts of chemotherapy, Doreen Cormack is at last enjoying definite signs of improvement.

“It has been a long haul, but I do feel better than I used to,” she said. “I’m not as stiff as I was and I definitely have more energy. I just need to build up my muscles again.

“I knew it wouldn’t be an overnight fix, but I did think I would have seen a quicker response than I have, but then, I just had the last lot of chemotherapy a month ago.”

While the treatment is designed to stop the disease progressing any further which it appears to have achieved, those who have gone through the process, say it’s not until a year after the treatment that you start to notice any real difference. Hence, Doreen is also optimistic that huge improvements are still to come.

She has nevertheless had to experience some horrendous surgery involving several days of chemotherapy at up to five hours each day. If that wasn’t enough to be going on with, Doreen, who has suffered from MS for almost 20 years, had to travel half way around the world, as stem cell treatment for MS, which although is being trialled, is not available in this country.

This extremely scientific process which involves killing off as many of the MS cells as possible with chemotherapy, building healthy cells back up and extracted them from the patient’s own bone marrow, does nevertheless enjoy some success in other countries to include the States, Mexico and Russia.

Such countries also have specialised stem cell hospitals that attract patients, many of whom have wasted away and are now confined to a wheelchair, from all over the world.

However, at £55,000 a pop, the treatment in Mexico, where Doreen looked into attending, does not come cheap, but it was one which her friends and family were not going to allow her to give up on.

Having instigated to have the treatment in Mexico and been recommended by a private neurologist in this country, the news of how much it would cost could not have come at a worse time though as Alistair’s previous employer, Rae Grieve, sadly passed away. Hence, Alistair was not only made redundant, but the couple had to move out of their home for almost 20 years, at Carlhurlie, Fife.

But being so well respected and loved not only in their local area but also in agricultural circles, there was no stopping farmers digging deep to help Doreen in any way they could.

And, with Stuart and Janette Ogle, at the helm, a fund raising campaign was organised in the summer of 2016 purely to get Doreen and Alistair to Mexico for that all important surgery.

The generosity of the farming community was overwhelming too with a massive five-figure sum raised, of which most was generated at a charity auction at the Stirling Bull Sales in October, which coupled with numerous donations and the sale of raffle tickets, enabled the couple to make that big step across The Pond.

And it was a huge undertaking, as Doreen was told by her neurologist: “You could die.”

But, almost a year on from that trip and a further six batches of chemotherapy in Scotland since, at £800 a shot to kill off rogue MS cells, and Doreen is still glad she went.

“I tried fighting the disease for as long as I could, but it catches up with you. You get so very, very tired and it gets to the stage you lose your mobility, so I had to give up my job in Ladybank in 2015.

“The neurologists in this country are so against stem cell treatment because there is so much money in the drugs prescribed for it, so I had to see a doctor privately, who in turn helped to organise the trip.

“I’m still glad I went and would still advise people with MS to go and the earlier the better as the treatment seems to be more effective in the early stages of MS.”

However, she was also keen to stress what is involved. “I really didn’t think it would be as bad as it was, but then I didn’t really realise how much chemotherapy there was.

“There were four or five massive doses of chemo to kill as many of the MS cells as possible, over a three-week period which totally floored me. I could hardly move. It then took another five hours of chemotherapy to remove the stem cells from bone marrow in my back, which were replaced during another massive spell of chemotherapy.”

In all, the couple spent a month in their own private apartment in Mexico which neighboured others getting the same treatment. There was a private bus to transport individuals to the hospital on the days surgery was required.

“The apartment, treatment and all the nurses and doctors were fantastic and so supportive. Mexico is supposed to be a third world country but the standard of care was unbelievable and there was always someone there if you had any problems while in the apartment,” concluded Doreen.

What is involved

While the couple spent a month in Mexico, there were just nine days of treatment at the hospital which were split over a four-week period.

The first day involved extensive medical tests including review of patient MRI scans of the brain, cervical, thoracic and lumber spines; chest X-ray, blood panel electrocardiogram and spinometry.

Day two is the first day of chemotherapy to condition the immune system to start killing off white blood cells and mobilise new stem cells. Subcutaneous injections are then given the following day to mobilise the stem cells from the bone marrow into the blood. A hemodialysis cathether is also installed.

In the second week, the patient’s own adult stem cells are filtered out of the blood by a centrifuge and stored at four degrees Celsius.

The next two days are the most crucial of the treatment as high doses chemotherapy are given on both days to destroy the majority of the existing immune system.

It is the next day, or day six, and into the third week, when recovery starts, as stem cells are given back to the patient. It is nevertheless at this stage when patients are at their most vulnerable as blood cell count is abnormally low and therefore, individuals are susceptible to infection. Therefore, diet and exposure to infection/disease is highly controlled and blood samples are taken at regular intervals. However, this period also sees the growth of new immune cells without memory of MS.

By the following day, day eight, white blood cells return to safer levels, but diet and exposure are still carefully monitored.

The final part of the treatment involves another massive dose of chemotherapy to deplete any remaining MS cells.

Provided all has gone well, patients are then able to return home in the fourth week.

On return, Doreen had to endure another six bouts of chemotherapy over a six month period to ensure all rogue cells had been killed off which of course meant regular visits to the doctor’s to ensure blood counts were normal prior to any treatment.

Unfortunately, it also meant Doreen had to keep herself very much to herself and avoid large crowds and areas of potential infection and disease. Her treatment is at long last finished now though, so fingers crossed we’ll all be seeing a lot more of a healthy, glowing, mobile Doreen …