Ethical stem cell treatment for MS gives Oxford don new lease of life

A senior academic with multiple sclerosis (MS) has shared his story of how ethical stem cell treatment paused his condition and aided him in enjoying his life even more.

Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst of Magdalen College, Oxford, was diagnosed with the degenerative disease in 2017, and over the next two years his condition deteriorated rapidly.

But in an interview with fellow MS patient Stephen Bleach for The Times, the academic and author revealed that in 2019 he greatly benefitted from treatment that involves a course of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, followed by the implantation of your own stem cells.


The treatment – autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation – is expensive but was successful, and because it uses cells from his own body, it does not require the destruction of human embryos.

Four years on, the decline in his condition appears to have stopped. He has written a book, Metamorphosis, on his experience of living with the condition.

“I’ve learnt to value the things that come from having MS. This morning, for instance, I woke up with a cat on my bed. We kind of padded downstairs to make tea: it took me three times as long as it would have done before MS.

“But I enjoyed it more. There’s a sense of achievement at having got downstairs and not broken my neck, made a cup of tea and not scalded myself.”

‘Not so tragic’

He does sometimes struggle with the disparity between his thoughts and his control over his body, explaining: “I’ve learnt how to cohabit with it, in a way that is neither affectionate nor one of dislike or despair. We get along.”

“I’m not going to pretend that MS is a gift”, he added. “I’m not glad it happened to me. But there are side benefits and you can recognise and even relish them.”

Bleach, who is Letters Editor for The Times, told Prof Douglas-Fairhurst that he sometimes struggles with an odd sense of guilt that strikes him when he does not appear to be as ill as others expect him to be.

His interviewee empathised: “There’s this weight of expectation. In terms of story, MS is supposed to be a tragedy, a demonstrable decline that ends up in a small patch of ground. If you don’t conform to that story people feel kind of cheated.”

New boundaries

Reflecting on his condition, the Oxford don told Bleach: “It’s strange but I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I think that’s because I’ve come to appreciate just how fragile it all is. I was sleepwalking through much of my life. I was on autopilot. Now I take pleasure in small things.”

“On the one hand you’ve been trapped inside a new kind of cage, your own body. On the other, that brings a weird sense of freedom. I definitely felt that, because the boundaries of success change.

“Before, you might feel that not being CEO of your company is a failure. Now just managing to make a cup of tea is a massive success and you feel it just as much as the other, so-called bigger successes.”

Also see:

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