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Alberta to study controversial MS therapy

Paolo Zamboni, the Italian doctor who pioneered the controversial MS treatment dubbed 'liberation therapy.'

Alessandro Vincenzi for The Globe and Mail/alessandro vincenzi The Globe and Mail

Bowing to pressure from patients, Alberta has become the latest province to fund a study of a controversial therapy for multiple sclerosis.

The government committed $1-million to track the results of at least 500 Albertans, including those who have travelled overseas for so-called liberation therapy, over the next three years. Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said the government will fund a $6-million clinical trial if the results of the observational study are positive.

The announcement Thursday places Alberta among a small group of provinces and territories that have agreed to take a closer look at the experimental procedure, leaving behind the more cautious approach of the federal government. Newfoundland, like Alberta, has agreed to study patients who have sought the therapy overseas. Saskatchewan is the only province to indicate that it could start clinical trials as early as next year. Yukon plans to participate in those trials.

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Tom Feasby, dean of the University of Calgary's faculty of medicine, said "unprecedented interest" drove the government's decision. Both the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta will conduct the research. "I think the MS community can say their activism has made a difference here," Dr. Feasby said.

Ever since it was introduced a year ago, liberation therapy has pitted doctors against patients. The treatment is based on an unproven hypothesis advanced by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni that some cases of MS are vascular disorders caused by vein blockages that lead to a buildup of iron in the brain, rather than an autoimmune disease, and can be treated by a simple surgical procedure - angioplasty. It remains unclear whether blocked veins cause the disease or are a symptom.

The procedure is not performed in Canada, but that hasn't stopped Canadians from shelling out thousands of dollars for the therapy in countries such as India or Poland. An Ontario man died in October from complications after seeking treatment at a Costa Rican clinic.

The federal government has postponed funding clinical trials until it has the results of seven research projects being funded by the MS Societies in Canada and the United States that are looking to see if blocked veins are prevalent in MS patients.

Alberta's study will largely be done online, and will rely on qualitative descriptions of symptoms to gauge the successes and pitfalls of the treatment as compared to the symptoms of those who elect not to have it.

Fort McMurray, Alta., resident Brenda Requier, who travelled to Poland in June for treatment, plans to sign up for the study, but said she is disappointed the government hasn't launched full-blown clinical trials. Since the treatment, she said she has better balance, her vision has improved and she can now babysit her grandchildren.

"This is just dragging feet and wasting time. People who are ill don't have time and are becoming more neurologically damaged," Ms. Requier said. "I'm not overly excited about it at all."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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