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Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni made world news with his experimental treatment for MS, which immediately prompted calls for studies. (Alessandro Vincenzi/Alessandro Vincenzi/The Globe and Mail)
Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni made world news with his experimental treatment for MS, which immediately prompted calls for studies. (Alessandro Vincenzi/Alessandro Vincenzi/The Globe and Mail)

Paul Taylor's Small Doses

The Obama effect and the year in medicine Add to ...

Most previous research has indicated that MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body's own immune system attacks the protective myelin coating on nerves. The disease can affect balance, mobility, vision, hearing and memory. Dr. Zamboni acknowledges his findings are preliminary and need to be confirmed by other research teams. And even if the treatment works in some patients, MS may still be an autoimmune disorder. Poor blood drainage could simply be a trigger that sets the disease in motion, according to Dr. Zamboni.

The MS Society of Canada, with an annual research budget of about $10-million, has urged scientists to submit proposals to investigate the theory. UBC has requested funds to begin a study involving 100 patients.

Perplexing rise of celiac disease

Celiac disease was once considered to be a fairly rare disorder. But an increasing number of people are being stricken with the digestive ailment. And there is good reason to be concerned - it can lead to an early death.

A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., revealed the disease is 4.5 times more common today than it was about 50 years ago. "It now affects about one in 100 people," said Joseph Murray, lead author of the study published in the journal Gastroenterology.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of nutrients. It is triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Dr. Murray says something must have changed in the environment to make the condition more common. He speculated that modern food production and processing could be to blame. But, he readily acknowledges, "it could be something entirely different."

Faux journals

Pharmaceutical companies will often use favourable studies and review articles published in peer-reviewed journals as part of their sale pitches to doctors.

"See, look how well our drug works," the drug reps will say as they hand physicians reprints of the seemingly objective reports.

But what if there is a lack of published material? Or, more to the point, no articles with a positive spin?

Well, if you're especially audacious, it seems you just create a journal out of thin air.

Pharmaceutical giant Merck paid an undisclosed sum to publishing firm Elsevier to produce several editions of what looked like peer-reviewed medical journals, The Scientist magazine revealed earlier this year.

The pseudo-publications, part of a Merck marketing effort to raise the profile of the company's drugs among Australian physicians, came to light during court proceedings.

One of the publications was titled The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine and included glowing reviews of Merck's osteoporosis drug Fosamax and painkiller Vioxx, which has since been pulled from the market.

Rush to judgment

If there is a lesson to be learned from 2009 it's this: Don't jump to conclusions.

Take the case of a British schoolgirl who died within hours of receiving a vaccination that provides protection against cervical cancer.

Many parents - including some in Canada - began to question the safety of the shots.

However, an autopsy later revealed that Natalie Morton's chest cavity was filled with cancer.

It now appears the timing of her death, so close to getting the vaccine jab, was just a coincidence. The multiple tumours were so advanced, "death could have arisen at any point," pathologist Alexander Kolar told an inquest.

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