Calgary experts, along with international researchers, say they’ve come up with an effective treatment for a debilitating disease that often leads to the death of its victims.

Scleroderma is a chronic disorder that affects the tissue throughout the patient’s body, tightening the skin and connective tissue in many different areas. It has the potential to cause damage to internal organs and can even lead to death.

Experts say that patients used to be left with very few options but now, thanks to breakthroughs in research, they can enjoy a brighter future.

The treatment process begins with an injection to help release the patient’s own stem cells from their bone marrow and into their bloodstream. Those cells are then harvested from the blood and stored while the patient undergoes chemotherapy and radiation.

After that, the stem cells are returned to the patient to begin the repair process.

Patients, like Don Remizowski, say the results shocked him.

“While I was recovering in hospital, I heard a squeak coming from my legs, it startled me,” he said. “My doctor explained my muscles had tightened so much it was like they were frozen, and the treatment was allowing them to thaw. The squeaking was my muscles starting to move again.”

Dr. Jan Storek, with the University of Calgary, says the treatment has been proven effective against auto-immune diseases like scleroderma.

“That sparked interest into whether bone marrow transplantation can treat just an auto-immune disease in patients with auto-immune diseases, not blood cancer. That started a series of studies to answer this question.”

Storek says the team underwent three studies, including a randomized study comparing the treatment to conventional methods.

He calls the breakthrough a rather ‘fortuitous discovery’.

“We still don’t have a perfect explanation,” Storek said. “Back in the 1960s or 70s, mouse experiments were done where if a mouse had an auto-immune disease and got chemotherapy or radiation followed by an infusion of bone marrow cells from a healthy mouse, the disease was cured.”

Doctors then began to follow patients who had blood disorders, such as leukemia, that required similar treatments and had an auto-immune disease.

“We noted in those patients that if the leukemia went away, the auto-immune disease also tended to go away.”

Storek says that led to trials for treatment of auto-immune disease sufferers who did not have blood cancers.

At the same time, he says surprising discovery was made when the trials used the patient’s own stem cells, a common treatment for lymphoma.

“Not only did the lymphoma go away, but surprisingly also the auto-immune disease went away.”

Storek says using the patient’s own stem cells is very beneficial because it is a lot less toxic than using them from another source.

He says that the reason why it works is still mystery.

“We know that it ‘reboots’ the immune system. It’s like a jump start of the immune system. We are wiping out a lot of immune cells with the high-dose chemotherapy and radiation and the regenerating immune cells, for reasons that are unclear, are not causing the disease.”

Dr. Storek says the results have been very rewarding for him because they are improving the lives of patients.

“In previous days they had a poor prognosis and were destined to gradually worsen and ultimately die. Now, having the opportunity to have the disease at least stabilized and sometimes improved; it’s always very rewarding to see that.”

(With files from Kevin Green)