In a striking departure from his political counterparts across the country, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says his government will finance clinical trials of liberation therapy, a contentious experimental procedure for multiple sclerosis patients.
"There isn't unanimity on the issue, I understand that," Mr. Wall said on Tuesday. "But ... the province of Saskatchewan is willing to play a funding role."
The move shunts Saskatchewan to the forefront of Canadian efforts to introduce a treatment that has researchers, politicians and the MS community divided over the roots of the mysterious nerve-wasting disease and the pace of Canadian medical research.
While Mr. Wall's comments serve up an uncomfortable nudge to political leaders elsewhere who have largely avoided the emotionally charged debate, it comes as soothing news to those living with the disease.
"I'm ecstatic," said Lori Lumax, a 44-year-old Regina resident who was diagnosed with MS seven years ago, shortly after her entire left side stopped working. She has regained use of all her limbs, but her co-ordination and eyesight fail her if she becomes fatigued.
"It's not an easy disease to live with. For us, you're considered lucky if you can live a long life in a wheel chair. This creates hope we can do better."
Liberation therapy has been hotly debated among MS patients since Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni published results of a recent study that posits MS as a vascular disorder caused by vein blockages that lead to a buildup of iron in the brain rather than an autoimmune disease.
By opening constricted veins, he reportedly improved the condition of 65 patients.
"All these years, we've been getting an electrician to do a plumber's job," said Ms. Lumax. "I'm not saying the neurologists are doing anything wrong, but I don't want to be on my $2,000-a-month medications forever. The angioplasty could be a way to get off the medication."
The study results gained instant and fervent traction among MS patients worldwide, many of whom directed their enthusiasm into campaigns to have the procedure adopted by government health agencies.
While Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and several other countries now offer the surgery - attracting several Canadians at roughly $10,000 per angioplasty - health officials insist the research is still too meagre to warrant full-blown clinical trials.
"This procedure has clearly captured the public's imagination," said Paul Hébert, editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a critical-care physician. "But we have very little data to move forward. If this were anything else, any other procedure, we would say that we simply don't have enough information to allocate people to this potentially risky procedure."
And that's what makes Mr. Wall's comments unique, a very public declaration that Canada's snail-paced medical bureaucracy should unleash the purse-strings for a procedure that holds the potential of improving thousands of lives. Research funding has been granted to explore Dr. Zamboni's theory, but clinical trials would signal a clear acceleration in the normal pace of medical study.
"Yes, there is an unusual element here in that one procedure for one disease is being requested by a Premier," said Dr. Hébert. "He obviously wants the best for his patients and he can't go it alone. He is effectively calling on the federal government and the provinces to kick in money. And that to me is great."
But the optics could trip him up. Fast-tracking a specific avenue of research for a specific disease could give a skewed perception of medical priorities, said Dr. Hébert.
"I applaud Premier Wall because he is saying let's step up evidence-based care and research in the country," said Dr. Hébert. "But he must remember that there are countless diseases we need research for. If you open the door here, Mr. Wall, we hope you will promote the need for all clinical research all over the country."
Saskatchewan has the highest rate of MS in the country, making the issue somewhat personal for the Premier.
"There isn't anybody who doesn't have a family member or friend who is battling it," Mr. Wall said.
Even among MS patients, opinions on the radical technique are split. During recent Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada board elections last month, a voting faction arose with stated aim of closing out candidates who wanted resources increased for research into the Zamboni technique.
Those Canadians who have flown overseas for the procedure admit that, while promising, the angioplasty is not a cure-all.
"I still have patches of numbness, those things won't go away," said Duncan Thornton, a Winnipeg resident who travelled to Poland for the surgery in March. "But I have more energy than I've had for 20 years. I can play with my kids, I can stand up and do dishes, I can live life like a normal parent."
With a report from Canadian Press