Brittany Keogh is a reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Stem cell treatment gives sick Auckland mum hope

An Auckland woman given a devastating multiple sclerosis diagnosis just months after the birth of her first child is pinning her hopes of recovery on ground-breaking treatment in Russia.

Donna Agnew and her partner Che Brown welcomed their son Quinn in September last year.

But since waking on January 2 feeling dizzy and nauseous, the new mum has battled constant and crippling headaches.

"A couple minutes later it felt like someone was hitting me at full force on the back of my head and then it moved for the temples into my head... I know what a migraine is but this is a migraine to the tenth degree, just insane," she told the Herald on Sunday.

A recent MRI revealed the cause of the 37-year-old's pain - multiple sclerosis (MS), an awful diagnosis for Agnew and her loved ones.

An auto-immune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, MS is unpredictable, affecting different people in different ways.

"What it does is it depends on where your lesions form [in the brain] as to what part of your body or your mind that it impacts," Agnew said.

"A lot of people lose their mobility and end up in a wheelchair. People lose their vision and go blind.

"One of the things I'm most worried about myself is the impact on my cognitive ability."

She told the Herald on Sunday it was hard to even imagine that as a new mum she might be struck down with MS and have the quality of her life severely impacted on.

"I just can't even go down that path, that's awful."

She does not presently quality for funded treatment in New Zealand and is now hoping to undergo potential life-changing stem cell and chemotherapy treatment called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), which was said to have an 80 per cent success rate, in Russia.

The treatment and travel costs will cost $100,000, with a family friend launching an online campaign to raise funds. Last night about $30,000 had been raised on the Givealittle page.

Agnew said HSCT was used to treat MS sufferers around the world and was publicly funded in the United States, the UK, Japan and Mexico but wasn't available here.

She started researching overseas treatment options after New Zealand doctors told her there wasn't much they could currently do to help her.

"I don't qualify for any treatment in New Zealand at all," Agnew said.

"[To get] New Zealand funding requires me to have two attacks and between those attacks, to be classed as a new attack you have to have 30 days of respite, whereas my attack is everyday."

Multiple Sclerosis NZ national manager Amanda Keefe said the organisation recommended people try Pharmac-funded treatments in New Zealand before deciding to spending tens of thousands of dollars on stem cell treatment overseas.

"A lot of people are coming back showing positive results. [But] there are people coming back with no results," Keefe said.

Auckland University Associate Professor Dr Bronwen Connor said HSCT was essentially a bone marrow transplant which had been used successfully in blood cancer treatments for many years.

Bone marrow stem cells were known to secrete anti-inflammatories which could help reduce the symptoms of MS.

"It looks like, for many patients, it is beneficial. It's not going to cure MS so they are looking at it to alleviate or slow some of the symptoms," she said.

She said the long term effects of the treatment were not yet known because the trials only started in the late 1990s.

"It is low risk in regard to the use of those stem cells but I can't say there is no risk. That's what the clinical trials can't tell us because they haven't gone on too long."

Agnew said her own research had shown the death rate for HSCT was less than 1 per cent

"I realise there is this risk. But the lifetime of living with MS and not knowing what's going to happen to me - that's a much greater risk."

To donate to Donna Agnew or to find out more, visit: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/donnaagnew

- Herald on Sunday

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