Man., Sask. join forces on MS 'liberation' treatment

Manitoba joins Saskatchewan in researching a controversial therapy for multiple sclerosis.

Clinical trials of so-called liberation therapy for people with multiple sclerosis got a $5-million boost Tuesday from Manitoba which has decided to partner with its neighbour to the west.

Saskatchewan announced late last year that it was going it alone after other provinces and the federal government showed reluctance to do trials without more preliminary research. It pledged $5 million and issued a call for proposals.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger noted that with Manitoba's money now on the table, the $10 million the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada originally asked Ottawa to pony up for national trials has been achieved.

"It would be excellent if all the governments participated in a multi-site proposal including the federal government," he said when pressed on the timing of the announcement. Selinger faces a provincial election in the fall.

"In the absence of that, what's the Plan B that will move the agenda forward? This is a strong Plan B."

The premier said he still hopes others may join in but noted that MS patients don't want to wait years for answers. Even if the clinical trials get underway this year, it could be at least 2014 before the results are in.

Dr. Arnold Naimark of the Manitoba Health Research Council said the timing is hard to predict, since the studies haven't even been designed yet. But a call for proposals will go out nationally and patients outside of Manitoba and Saskatchewan could very well be involved, he said.

He also said it's possible answers could be obtained sooner — either because results are so favourable or because problems turn up which make further testing of the procedure unwise.

High rates of MS on Prairies

Liberation therapy, also referred to as chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency treatment, was pioneered by Italian surgeon Paolo Zamboni.

A balloon angioplasty is used to widen a vein in the neck, which is thought to relieve a buildup of iron in the brain. Many Canadians have been travelling abroad to have it performed.

Canada has a very high incidence of multiple sclerosis and on a per capita basis the largest number of people with the disease live in Atlantic Canada and the Prairies.

The MS Society was pleased with the announcement, but still focused on the need for national trials.

"On behalf of all Canadians living with MS, we are pleased that the Manitoba government has made multiple sclerosis a top-priority health issue," spokesman Stewart Wong said in an emailed response.

"Scientifically relevant clinical trials in multiple sclerosis typically take place across a broad range of sites. If a nationwide clinical trial is to take place, the Manitoba and Saskatchewan projects will be helpful in ensuring this aim could be achieved."

Selinger said the trials will be in several places and the idea is to select the best proposal, not necessarily one from Manitoba researchers, although Manitoba patients must be included. Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have set aside more modest amounts to study patients treated elsewhere. New Brunswick is offering $500,000 to help those who want to receive the treatment somewhere else.

The MS Society has been reluctant to put money into clinical trials just yet and is funding other studies on things such as how to screen patients for liberation therapy.