A FORMER marathon runner who has battled multiple sclerosis for more than 20 years said she has made a dramatic recovery since she paid £40,000 for an experimental stem cell treatment in Mexico.

Former long distance runner Frances O'Connell, 48, of Caol in Lochaber, was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS when she was 26.

It deteriorated steadily but she found a glimmer of hope in a 2016 BBC documentary about an experimental trial of haematopoietic stem cell treatment (HSCT) in Sheffield.

Spaces were limited with strict admission criteria which Mrs O’Connell did not meet, so she raised £40,000 in under six months through a crowdfunding campaign to visit Clinica Ruiz in Puebla, Mexico.

Mrs O’Connell recorded her journey for a BBC Alba documentary called Frances: A’ Strì ri MS (Fighting for Frances), which will be shown on Sunday.

The aggressive treatment involves several rounds of chemotherapy to suppress her immune system and stimulate the production of stem cells, which are then harvested and reintroduced to the body over the course of a year.

The chemo left Mrs O’Connell “in agony” for days and she had to wear a surgical mask for months to ward off infection.

Six months into her treatment an MRI scan found some plaques and lesions on her brain and spine, signs that her MS was still present, but she was able to ride her bike, climb the stairs and run a short distance, tasks she found challenging prior to the treatment.

Within a year the plaques and lesions had disappeared and she was able to ride a horse, take her dog on long walks and run with her grandchildren.

She said: “I couldn’t do much to begin with, but I must say I’m doing a lot more now, much more than I ever thought I would be able to, and that makes me very happy indeed.”

Physiotherapist Kirstie Ross said Mrs O’Connell’s attitude, energy levels and other physical symptoms have improved, but acknowledged she still feels tired from time to time.

GP Dr John Wallace said: “Certainly talking to Frances, she feels that she is able to walk better, she able to go out for longer walks with her dog, she’s noticed a significant improvement with her eyesight and her bladder symptoms.

“The fatigue is a difficult one to assess just now because the treatment itself can make you feel tired, but there are signs that that is probably improving and hopefully as time goes on that will improve as well.”

Mrs O’Connell was one of 20 people who received treatment during her time in Puebla.

“Not everyone has been as lucky as me,” she said.

“Some people have received their results and they showed deterioration.”

Mrs O’Connell had to travel to Manchester for four follow up injections throughout the year, and received her final treatment at a recently established clinic at Spire Murrayfield Hospital in Edinburgh.

Professor Anna Williams, of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, said stem cells have shown some promise, but urged people to think carefully before embarking on expensive trials with variable results.

She said: “I think people feel that stem cells are the magic bullet of the day, that they’re magic, that they’re miracles. In many ways they are. They are absolutely astounding cells and I get very excited by them.

“But is it worth taking that risk that you get by suppressing your immune system, making yourself likely to get infections, and possibly in the future getting other complications from it?”

Around one in 500 people in Scotland have MS, the highest proportion in Europe.

“It’s not entirely clear why this is true,” said Professor Williams.

“Some of it may be genetic, other things may be related to sunshine which is particularly of interested in at the moment.

“We only get enough sunshine in Scotland between around March and November, and the rest of the year we haven’t go enough sunshine to get the conversion of vitamin D in our skin.

“Vitamin D is important in controlling your immune system and how well it knows what is you and what is something foreign.”

* Frances: A’ Strì ri MS (Fighting for Frances) is on BBC Alba at 9pm on Sunday.