A new theory that multiple sclerosis is a vascular disease that could be treated with simple surgery is so "exciting" and "potentially paradigm shifting" that the MS Society of Canada is calling on scientists to research it thoroughly and promising to back their work with significant research dollars.
"This merits serious and robust studies so we're going to issue a request for proposals," Yves Savoie, president of the MS Society of Canada, said in an interview.
Last year, the charitable group invested $10-million on research, and Mr. Savoie said it will spend whatever is required to test the new theory thoroughly.
On Saturday, The Globe and Mail and the CTV program W5 reported on the findings of Paolo Zamboni, a professor of medicine at the University of Ferrara in Italy.
His theory is that there is a condition, which he has dubbed chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency, that is the underlying cause of MS. That departs from the current thinking, which sees MS as an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks myelin, a fatty substance that coats nerve cells.
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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, and this led to a buildup of iron in the brain that he theorized causes the neurological symptoms of MS.
Further, Dr. Zamboni used a simple surgical technique, angioplasty, to clear blockages in the veins of 65 patients. This has been dubbed the "liberation procedure."
In a paper being published Tuesday in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, Dr. Zamboni reports that in the 18 months following surgery, 50 per cent of those MS patients had no attacks; in a control group that did not have surgery, the rate was 27 per cent. The number of surgery patients with brain lesions that typify MS fell to 12 per cent, compared with 50 per cent in the control group.
Until Saturday, the MS Society had been skeptical about CCSVI, saying there is "insufficient evidence to suggest this phenomenon is the cause of MS."
Mr. Savoie insisted the group's position has not changed, but, because of the overwhelming public response to the media stories, he wanted to stress the group's support for research that would either prove or disprove the theory.
"We're conscious of the potential paradigm shift this represents and we believe every avenue merits being probed," he said. "But our policy is to not put all our eggs in one basket."
The head of the MS Society also pleaded with patients to not do anything drastic until the theory is tested and proven. "One of the things we really don't want people with MS to do is to abandon their course of treatment," Mr. Savoie said.
The W5 broadcast and the Globe story have generated an overwhelming response on MS chat groups.
Many patients are clamouring for information on how to join a study that is under way at the Buffalo Neuroimaging Analysis Center, which is recruiting in the United States and Canada, and how they can travel to Italy for surgery.
The position of the MS Society is that entering clinical trials or undergoing experimental procedures is a personal decision of patients that should be made in conjunction with their treating physician.
Ashton Embry, founder of the Direct-MS, a Calgary-based consumer group that emphasizes the importance of good nutrition for the control of MS symptoms, said in a Web posting that "CCSVI has the potential to completely change how we see MS and how to treat it."
He predicted, however, that "it will be a long, hard fight to get the treatment of CCSVI from the laboratory to the clinic," because drug companies stand to lose a lot if a surgical treatment becomes the norm.
An estimated 55,000 to 75,000 Canadians suffer from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative condition that can cause loss of balance, heat sensitivity, impaired speech, extreme fatigue, double vision and paralysis.