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Dr. Paolo Zamboni , whose revolutionary research into Multiple Sclerosis suggests that it is a vascular disease rather than a autoimmune condition, is seen here at the American Academy of Neurology Conferece in Toronto Wednesday April 14, 2009. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Paolo Zamboni , whose revolutionary research into Multiple Sclerosis suggests that it is a vascular disease rather than a autoimmune condition, is seen here at the American Academy of Neurology Conferece in Toronto Wednesday April 14, 2009. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

MS treatment trials possible, Ottawa says Add to ...

The federal health minister says Ottawa has not ruled out clinical trials of a controversial treatment for multiple sclerosis.

Leona Aglukkaq said Tuesday that Canada could start the trials as soon as she receives findings from seven research projects announced in May.

"Clinical trials will happen in Canada - if and when the research supports it," she said at the conclusion of a meeting with her provincial and territorial counterparts in St. John's, N.L.

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Preliminary results are expected within a few months, she added.

Ms. Aglukkaq accused the media of leaving Canadians misinformed about Ottawa's intentions regarding the so-called liberation therapy.

Earlier this month, Ms. Aglukkaq said it would take more than anecdotes from some multiple sclerosis patients to persuade the federal government to pay for clinical trials.

"At this point in time, we do not have the evidence to proceed," she said Sept. 1, taking a harder line than the nuanced approach floated Tuesday.

Proponents of liberation therapy criticized Ottawa's original wait-and-see policy, saying Ms. Aglukkaq had to do more.

On Tuesday, the minister said she has been listening to MS sufferers and her provincial colleagues.

"Every health minister has heard first-hand of the frustrations and the challenges that Canadians with MS and their families face every day," she said.

"We are speaking with one voice on MS. It is important that we set the record strait for MS patients and their families."

After Tuesday's meeting, Ms. Aglukkaq insisted the provinces are on side with Ottawa's plan, even though some are moving ahead with research projects of their own.

The Saskatchewan government has opted to fund clinical trials of the treatment.

And the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced Monday it plans to pay for a study of multiple sclerosis patients who have chosen to undergo the procedure.

The province's health minister, Jerome Kennedy, said the purpose of the $320,000 study is to evaluate the impact on MS patients, but the government will not pay for patients to have the treatment.

Ms. Aglukkaq said subsequent media reports left Canadians with the wrong impression of the federal government's plans.

"We needed to clarify the misinformation that was laid out in the media," the minister said.

"What we've said all along is that there are studies underway - seven research projects that we announced. We hope to ... accelerate the development of a pan-Canadian clinical trial. ... We have never said no to a clinical trial."

Mr. Kennedy said the province didn't ask the federal government to get involved in its study.

"We're all agreed that we have to find an answer as to whether or not this works," he said after the meeting.

The treatment, developed by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni, involves widening constricted neck veins to improve blood flow from the brain. Mr. Zamboni has hypothesized that poor drainage allows the build-up of blood-borne iron deposits that damage brain cells, leading to MS symptoms.

But researchers say it's not clear if MS causes blocked veins, if blocked veins cause MS, or if the two are entirely unrelated.

Also on Monday, the provincial and territorial ministers pledged to work together to speed up study of the treatment by creating a new working group.

"As ministers of health, we are in complete agreement that we want to act as quickly as possible to get the expert advice we need to make informed decisions for MS patients," said Nova Scotia Health Minister Maureen MacDonald.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada is already sponsoring projects in British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Last month, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, following a meeting with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada and experts, said it would be premature to support pan-Canadian clinical trials.

It recommended the federal government monitor ongoing studies.

The institute cited a lack of scientific evidence on the safety and efficacy of liberation therapy, as well as a link between blocked veins and the disease.

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