Saskatchewan is partnering with U.S. researchers on a controversial multiple sclerosis treatment known as liberation therapy and plans to send patients south of the border for clinical trials.
The relationship with a research team at the Albany Medical Center in New York has not yet been finalized.
But Health Minister Don McMorris said Friday up to 90 Saskatchewan MS patients would be involved in the trial and the province is setting aside about $2-million to cover all expenses, including accommodation, travel and food.
“There's been lots of talk and lots of emotion around this subject and this will help move the science ahead,” he said at the legislature.
“There's a number of places in the United States that have been doing this procedure, but this is a clinical trial, not just to do the procedure but to study it and to see the efficacy of the treatment.”
Canada has a high incidence of multiple sclerosis and, on a per capita basis, the largest number of people with the disease live in Atlantic Canada and on the Prairies. Many Canadians have been travelling abroad to have the treatment performed.
Liberation therapy involves widening veins in the neck to improve blood flow from the brain.
Last October, Saskatchewan was the first province to pledge clinical trials when it put up $5-million and issued a call for proposals. The Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation said on its website that the goal was to proceed with clinical trials by the spring of 2011.
But there was a setback when McMorris revealed in June that only one proposal had been received and it didn't meet criteria set by an expert panel.
The province started looking at other options.
“I said at the time we're not backing away from trying to further the science,” he said.
“We've been working on this for a very long time. We've had some stops in the road ... when we tried to have our clinical trials here in Saskatchewan. Since that time we've been working hard, we've come up with this solution and I think it's a very good solution to be able to enter into clinical trials through the States.”
News of the setback in Saskatchewan in June came as Ottawa said it planned to fund a clinical trial.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the move in spite of recent studies that have cast doubt on narrowed neck veins as the primary cause of the debilitating illness. She said a scientific working group established by the federal government in August, 2010, unanimously agreed that a preliminary clinical trial into the procedure should proceed.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research hopes the trial will begin early next year, but concedes it could take years before determining whether liberation therapy works and should be widely available in Canada.
McMorris said Saskatchewan still intends to support the federal process, but didn't want to leave patients “in limbo until that work is completed.”
The MS Society of Canada, Saskatchewan division, said it's happy with Friday's announcement.
“We are pleased that although further development needs to go into this area, that the government has put the effort into finding an alternative that they can move ahead with now and potentially start getting some results that can help in the long-term,” said division president Jack Aldcorn.
McMorris said the partnership should be finalized in two to three months.
Opposition New Democrat Judy Junor said it's a good idea to get started, but questioned the timing of the announcement before the Nov. 7 election.
“I'm a politician so I understand that the minister needs to have something to offer people when the election is called in two weeks,” said Junor.
“There was that hope when the announcement was made that there would be something concrete done in Saskatchewan and nothing has happened. So I think that the politicians need to have something to offer the people in the next election and this is it.”
McMorris said it's important for people to know the government is moving ahead.
The minister speculated that there would be “a huge uptake” for the trial and said people need to know so they can prepare for a commitment that could involve a couple years of their life. He also cautioned that people need to know what they're getting into.
“This is not a procedure that has been, I guess, accepted completely through the medical community. People need to know that. There is definitely some risk.”