A senior BBC foreign correspondent has described her joy at her “second chance of life” after flying out to Mexico to receive a pioneering treatment for multiple sclerosis, which the NHS had denied her. Caroline Wyatt paid £55,000 for the treatment —and the disease appears to be retreating.
“Already I can feel that the fog within my brain is lifting. I am less stiff when I wake up in the morning. My eyes hurt less,” she told The Times. “And now that I am at home convalescing, my unyielding body seems a little more responsive to my brain’s commands each day.”
Wyatt, 49, former foreign and defence correspondent for the BBC, had hoped that she would be eligible to join an NHS trial in the UK in January, but she was told at the last minute that she was not a suitable candidate. Her only option was to pay for the treatment in Russia or Mexico.
Raising some of the money from crowdsourcing and the rest from family and friends, she had to find a further £6,000 for a specialist drug. Yet after only being home for a few weeks she has been shocked by the results.
“Already my legs feel less heavy,” she said. “The dead weight pulling them down has magically lifted, and my arms, though weak, no longer have useless, numb yet painful fingers at the end of each hand that cannot do up buttons or hold a pencil to write. MS was starting to silence me . . . I am relishing this second chance of life.”
Wyatt has lived and worked with MS for more than 25 years, but the illness was only definitely diagnosed two years ago. During her 26 years working at the BBC she felt her condition gradually deteriorate, as walking became more difficult and she found herself increasingly exhausted.
In 2014 she moved from her role as defense correspondent to cover religion for the broadcaster but within weeks was on her way to northern Iraq in her new job. She was sick with sunstroke and a migraine that would not go away. “My health could always wait. Suddenly it couldn’t wait any more,” she said.
She had a bad relapse in May 2015 and found it impossible to get out of bed. Her MS was then diagnosed in November. She was given hope by a Panorama programme which showed a stem-cell transplant treatment being carried out at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield.
Dr Richard Burt, a pioneer of the treatment in Chicago, has halted the progression of MS in at least 80 per cent of his patients for five years. The haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) treatment involves several rounds of chemotherapy to knock out “misbehaving cells”.
Patients then have to harvest their own stem cells after encouraging them from within the bone marrow. She was deemed as unsuitable by the Sheffield team but learnt on Facebook of the treatment in Mexico City. After chemotherapy, injections and drugs, she is back home, working on two radio documentaries, one looking at the how cell transplants work.
“I notice as I type today that my left eye no longer blurs so much. But whatever happens to me, at least I shall have tried.” Wyatt said she dreads any signs of the numbness returning, “Yet I’ve rarely felt so alive.”
Treatment can be deadly
Stem-cell treatments for multiple sclerosis, which affects more than 100,000 people in the UK, can have apparently miraculous effects, but British experts are cautious, stating that they are at an early stage.
Patients are given a drug that encourages stem cells to move from the bone marrow to the blood stream. Those cells are removed from the body, purified and frozen. Chemotherapy is used to eliminate the diseased immune system and the patient’s stem cells are returned to their body to re-grow the immune system.
Previous trials have suggested that it will not work for all patients, and it carries greater risks than existing drug treatments: eight of the 281 participants involved in a previous trial died.