Meningitis – a very serious disease if not treated quickly – affects upwards of one million people around the world every year according to the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations. What’s more, it’s difficult to diagnose and it most commonly affects babies, toddlers, children and teenagers. Current treatments don’t guarantee recovery and the repercussions are life-altering, including late-onset learning difficulties, hearing loss, and general developmental delays. While scientists around the world are working tirelessly to develop and test bone marrow transplants for widespread, life-threatening diseases like cancer, scientists in Germany have been leading the way in allogeneic stem cell transplantation to treat meningitis.
Meningitis can be viral, bacterial or fungal. Bacterial is the most severe. Unfortunately, because it’s so difficult to recognize in its early stages, many children and adults are diagnosed too late and face brain damage and even death. Because common symptoms of meningitis (fever, stiff neck, drowsiness, nausea) resemble common symptoms of dozens of other, less harmful diseases, they might not be taken seriously.
In children, the symptoms are even more difficult to recognize as all signs point to a generally fussy baby rather than a sick one. New mother’s likely won’t rush to hospital because their child is especially irritable, tired, or crying, but all three are known symptoms, specifically in toddlers.
Most often, meningitis is treated one of three ways. In each case, though, doctors will usually start with broad-spectrum antibiotics. They’ll likely even prescribe the antibiotics before the test results come back as a preemptive measure. Patients can also be given a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) as quick and definitive (albeit invasive) alternative to blood tests and x-rays. In a lumbar puncture, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is collected and in patients with meningitis, the CSF will show low blood sugar, increased white blood cells, and increased levels of protein.
Patients who are confirmed to have meningitis and who aren’t stabilized with the initial course of antibiotics are often hospitalized and treated with injected antibiotics. But even that isn’t enough often times. In the US alone, 10-15 percent of those diagnosed with meningitis won’t survive and of those that do survive, 10 percent will have lingering symptoms like seizures and stroke.
Doctors in Germany were the first to use allogeneic stem cell transplantation. At a children’s hospital in Halles, Germany, a 19-year old was successfully treated, the infection was controlled, and nearly a full neurological recovery was made. It’s since been dubbed the future of meningitis treatment. In allogeneic stem cell transplantation, stem cells are collected from a matching donor, transplanted into the ailing patient, and the stem cells go to work suppressing the disease and restoring the patient’s immune system. This process is different from autologous stem cell transplants which use the stem cells from the patient’s own body. Allogenic stem cells transplants are used around the world to treat cancers such as lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia as well as other diseases of the bone marrow or immune system.
After the success of the 19-year old in Germany, doctors in Germany are keen to help foreign patients. German Medicine Net, created back in 2001 as an answer to the UK’s waiting list problem, co-operates with renowned institutions for stem cell therapy. Meningitis is regarded as a condition that can be considered for treatment. As research and clinical trials continue, the future of medicine – especially in treating meningitis – truly lies in stem cells.