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Vancouver — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Published on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 9:17PM EST
.The University of British Columbia has announced plans to begin patient trials to test a potentially groundbreaking method of diagnosing and treating multiple sclerosis, a disease that afflicts up to 75,000 Canadians.
Researchers have proposed launching a study involving 100 patients to test a theory that MS is a vascular disease that can be treated with surgery. It's the first research proposal in Canada to suggest evaluating the findings of an Italian doctor whose early studies indicate that multiple sclerosis might be caused by vein blockages that lead to a buildup of iron in the brain.
The findings of Paolo Zamboni have generated a great deal of interest among researchers and those with MS. Earlier this year, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada appealed to scientists to follow up Dr. Zamboni's theories.
The proposed UBC trial, which would be done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, is an answer to that appeal, said Anthony Traboulsee, medical director of the UBC MS Clinic.
Dr. Traboulsee said Dr. Zamboni's studies have caused both hope and anxiety among people with MS. They are hungry for a breakthrough, but realize the Italian doctor's findings are preliminary.
“They are very anxious about this,” Dr. Traboulsee said Tuesday in an interview. “MS is a lifelong disease. Young people are hungry for hope.” Because of the intense interest in the new findings, Dr. Traboulsee said the proposed patient trials must “take a careful” approach.
Unlike Dr. Zamboni's earlier studies, the UBC research plan will include a control group – which gives more heft to a study's findings – and will take place over a longer period.
In Dr. Taboulsee's proposed trial, researchers would closely examine participants' neck and stomach veins. The study group will include people with and without MS. Each participant will undergo three tests, including an ultrasound, a magnetic resonance imaging test and the insertion of a catheter. In that test, dye is injected to give researchers a closer look at the veins.
Only MS participants with blocked or narrowed veins will move on to the second stage of the trials.
Half that group will undergo a vein dilation procedure – similar to an angioplasty – to expand the vein, the other half won't.
The purpose of UBC's proposed research trial is to build on the knowledge uncovered by Dr. Zamboni, a professor of medicine at the University of Ferrara in Italy. His theory is that a condition that he dubbed chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency causes MS. The current thinking is that MS is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks myelin, a fatty substance that coats nerve cells.
Dr. Zamboni found that, in about 90 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis, the veins draining blood from the brain were malformed or blocked, which led to a buildup of iron in the brain, which he theorized causes the neurological symptoms of MS.
Dr. Zamboni had 65 of his patients undergo an angioplasty to clear the blockage. Of those, 50 per cent reported no attacks in the next 18 months. In a group that did not have surgery, that rate was 27 per cent.
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative condition that can cause loss of balance, heat sensitivity, impaired speech, double vision and paralysis.
UBC's trial still needs funding and approval from an ethics committee. The researchers will apply for funds from the MS Society of Canada, private donors and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Dr. Taboulsee said the study will cost nearly $1-million for equipment and staff.
Researchers including some at UBC have already been studying links between MS and iron in the brain, Dr. Taboulsee said. He said the latest findings are like another piece to a jigsaw puzzle. Previous studies have linked MS to, among other things, a Vitamin D deficiency and cold climates.