(CBS) -- An experimental treatment for multiple sclerosis is showing promise in stopping symptoms of the disease, according to a new study that found that a single stem cell transplant could stop or delay symptoms better than some medications. Just over 75 percent of patients who took drugs over a five-year period saw their disease get worse while less than 10 percent of those who had a transplant saw their condition worsen.
As CBS News' Dr. Tara Narula reports, this procedure could be life-changing for some of the 2.3 million people affected by the chronic condition worldwide. Narula met two women who struggled for years with a relapsing-remitting MS. But current drug treatments are expensive, most require daily medications and have serious side effects. These women decided to volunteer for a small clinical trial to test a risky stem cell procedure that appears to be paying off.
Amanda Loy never imagined she'd be battling the Alaska elements on her runs instead of battling her disease. Loy was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS, the form that comes and goes in sporadic episodes, bringing her life to a sudden halt.
"Both of my arms went numb and I wasn't really able to use them well," Loy said.
Every month she underwent a drug infusion and took half a dozen other medications, but her symptoms just got worse.
"I started having bladder problems and my balance was really bad, requiring the cane more often," she said.
MS is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself and damages myelin, the protective covering surrounding nerve cells. With that insulation compromised, the nerves deteriorate and can cause a wide range of symptoms including vision problems, fatigue and weakness. So Loy traveled almost 3,000 miles to Chicago to participate in a trial with the hope of stopping the disease in its tracks.
"Transplants ended up being markedly superior in all the perimeters we looked at," said Dr. Richard Burt, who led the international trial at Northwestern School of Medicine. "You have to select the right group of patients … there's these really aggressive ones that are very relapsing and inflammatory that it works extremely well in."
Here's how it works: a patient's own stem cells are collected and stored. During a two-week stay in the hospital, high-dose chemo is given to wipe out the immune system. Then, the stem cells are infused back into the patient to "re-boot" the body's immune system.
Trudee Manderfield was just 23 when she received her diagnosis. She had trouble walking and temporarily went blind in one eye. In 2013, with an infant daughter, she was ready to try the new treatment. She was scared, but excited about the possibilities.
"I knew that I couldn't just keep going the way that I was going," Manderfield said. "There's a lot of potential side effects, I mean any procedure will have a side effect of death and, as a new mom, I go 'OK, well that would be bad' but I knew that I had to give it a shot."
The transplant might not be a permanent fix. There are serious risks like infertility, infection, and even death. As for Manderfield, she's keeping up with her three active children and Amanda Loy plans to head back to Chicago, not for treatment, but to run the city's marathon in October.