Multiple sclerosis (MS) patients in the United States and other countries around the world are trekking to Russia to undergo a controversial treatment for the neurological disorder that some researchers believe could lead to a cure.
Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (HSCT) is an experimental treatment for MS and has been shown in some cases to stop the progression of MS with just one dose. You can learn more about this procedure here. HSCT is a complicated process that is physically demanding of the patient. It requires a 11 day dose of chemotherapy followed by weeks of hospitalization after the procedure to allow the patients immune system to rebuild.
Not everyone is so sure of HSCT’s therapeutic benefits and some have called for more rigorous, well-controlled studies to look at the benefits of such therapy versus potential risks. In two separate studies, one in 2002 showed a mortality rate of 8% and a more recent study showed a mortality rate at 2%.
HSCT is available in the U.S. at a cost estimated to be US $125,000. Availability and price in the United States and elsewhere have led to patients traveling to Russia to obtain treatment. The procedure can be obtained quickly and at a fraction of the cost.
“I think [the reason] people are leaving the country has to do with cost.”
– Bruce Bebo,
the National Multiple Sclerosis Society
The implications for patients are clear. By traveling to Russia, they have access to cheaper therapies that may or may not be approved in the United States. However, Russia also has a clear motive for making it easier for patients to get access to therapies like HSCT. It’s big business.
In 2016 the Russia pharmaceutical market did $20.91 billion dollars and is one of the world’s fastest growth markets in the pharmaceutical sector. Some of that growth is attributed to the rise of medical tourism in the country. By 2021 the Russian pharmaceutical market will have grown to over $38 billion dollars.
Many in the neurology field are taking a wait-and-see approach to HSCT and others are urging a more serious examination of the risks vs. rewards. For desperate patients, the pace in the United States in examining the therapy is going too slowly. Many are not waiting and are willing to travel to far off lands to find an answer and hope.
Read more about this on Healthline here.