In search of an MS cure

There’s nothing quite like a mystery when it comes to getting people interested in something.

There’s nothing quite like a mystery when it comes to getting people interested in something.

We can’t leave it alone until it’s solved — or cured.

This human curiosity has answered many medical mysteries, leading to remedies and/or treatments that save millions of lives, or at least allow seriously ill people a decent quality of life.

Sadly, the mystery of multiple sclerosis — what causes it and how to cure it — continues to elude researchers.

MS takes quite a toll.

Canada has one of the highest rates of MS. We don’t know why — it’s part of the mystery of a disease that takes its victims on a long, often debilitating up-and-down ride, striking many as young adults.

Over 50,000 Canadians have MS — about three cases are diagnosed every day in this country.

With MS, the protective covering of the central nervous system is attacked. The flow of nerve impulses is interrupted, resulting in vision problems, numbness, loss of balance, extreme fatigue, tremors or even paralysis.

Here in Canada, government health agencies have avoided clinical trials on a certain procedure that MS sufferers are going to great personal lengths and cost ($30,000 for example) to get, but which hasn’t undergone the test of acceptable rigourous medical research. Such research takes years.

The experimental and controversial procedure known as liberation therapy is not offered in Canada so numbers of Canadians with MS, including a few from Central Alberta, are making their way overseas to places like India and Poland for treatment.

Liberation treatment was developed by Italian researcher Dr. Paolo Zamboni and is similar to angioplasty. It treats MS as a vascular disorder and involves openings veins in the neck and chest.

MS patients are returning to Canada saying the treatment helped them. It would be a stretch, though, to suggest there’s any evidence it can cure MS.

The whole idea of medical tourism is somewhat scary and viewed skeptically. It’s abhorrent that vulnerable people suffering serious illness should be taken advantage of as they desperately seek cures in faraway places where medical research and standards may not be as stringent as in Canada.

That said, in an unusual gesture, one provincial premier is willing to pitch money at liberation therapy to finance not initial medical research per se but actual clinical trials — to speed things along to see if the therapy stands up to more than just anecdotal evidence.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall heads up a province that possibly has the highest rate of MS in Canada. Alberta also has a high rate of MS.

This week, Wall offered funding for clinical trials on liberation therapy, and urged other provinces and Ottawa to join in.

So far, there are few details on how the Saskatchewan trials will unfold.

The standard reaction by medical professionals and government health officials is there hasn’t been enough research (there is some underway in Alberta) on liberation therapy to warrant full clinical trials.

Dr. Paul Hébert, a critical-care physician in Ottawa and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, says manipulating veins can be dangerous, and there is no established link between venous blockages and MS.

But the medical journal also notes that scientists and skeptics should not dismiss new ideas prematurely.

We should have a look at the procedure right here at home.

While it’s important to be cautious, all clinical trials carry some degree of risk. In the end they offer answers — whether we like those answers is another thing.

While Walls could be accused of political opportunism, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

What if liberation therapy turns out to be something that really can help thousands of Canadians cope with multiple sclerosis?

And if clinical trials show the procedure doesn’t really do anything for MS, they will have mercifully put a stop to costly false hope.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor.