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Saskatchewan Premier Brad WallReuters

Multiple sclerosis patients in Saskatchewan can now apply for enrolment in a U.S.-based study that is examining a controversial and widely publicized treatment for the disease.

Premier Brad Wall announced Thursday the application process is open and residents can apply for one of 86 spots to participate in a clinical trial of a vein-widening procedure some say can alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a debilitating chronic disease. The province is spending $2.2-million to participate in the study, which will cover all costs and patient expenses.

Patients who apply will be randomly selected to participate in the trial and then screened and medically assessed to ensure they are eligible. The first individuals expected to travel to Albany, N.Y., in March.

The province announced last fall that it would set aside funds to pay for up to 90 patients to take part in the clinical trial led by Gary Siskin, a vascular and interventional radiologist at Albany Medical Center. Dr. Siskin is conducting a trial involving 130 patients, which is being described as the largest double-blind study of the treatment conducted to date.

Dr. Siskin has emerged as a major proponent of the controversial MS theory first publicized by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni, who says the disease is not an autoimmune disease, as many have thought, but a vascular condition caused by blocked or malformed neck veins. Dr. Zamboni says symptoms may be alleviated with a relatively simple surgery to widen neck veins.

The theory has countless followers in Canada, which has one of the world's highest rates of MS. But the treatment is not approved here, which has led thousands to travel as far as Kuwait, Poland and Costa Rica to receive the treatment at medical clinics, often at very high costs. Proponents have also been lobbying provincial and federal governments to open up access to the treatment here.

Saskatchewan, believed to have the country's highest rate of MS, was the first to announce it would set aside funds for a clinical trial. The province received only one research proposal so it decided to partner with Dr. Siskin, who is planning to conduct his own trial in Albany.

The federal government announced last June it will also set aside $3-million to $5 million for a clinical trial of the treatment in Canada. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said last November the government is accepting research bids for the study, which is expected to involve 80 to 90 patients and could begin as early as this year.