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Wall sticks by MS plan, but other premiers skeptical

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and his Saskatchewan counterpart Brad Wall speak to reporters after a Council of the Federation meeting in Regina on Aug. 7, 2009.


Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall bolstered his support for a controversial multiple sclerosis treatment on Monday, predicting clinical trials could launch in the province as early as next year.

"I do believe there will be a solid proposal before the end of the year," he said, urging other provinces to collaborate. "I think there's a chance we'll see potential trials in the new year."

On Tuesday, Mr. Wall broke ranks with his provincial counterparts, vowing his government would finance liberation therapy, an experimental method of opening veins in the neck and spinal cord to combat the symptoms of the nerve-wasting disease.

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While two premiers rebuffed the appeal for provincial partners in the trial, Mr. Wall's escalating rhetoric spurred federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to reaffirm her support for research into the unproven procedure.

On Wednesday, she politely suggested she was even quicker to boost trials of liberation therapy than Mr. Wall.

"The federal government has already followed suit," she said on Long Plain First Nation, an hour west of Winnipeg, during a press conference to highlight funding for an aboriginal diabetes initiative. "We made an announcement some time ago that we would fund clinical trials."

Ottawa has invested more than $5-million through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fund MS research proposals. Ms. Aglukkaq contacted the CIHR to ensure clinical trials of liberation therapy would be eligible.

The Health Minister is also inviting experts in multiple sclerosis to Ottawa next month to discuss the controversial operation's potential.

But at least two premiers will not be taking up Mr. Wall's call.

Ontario's Dalton McGuinty said he'd like to see more than anecdotal evidence supporting the procedure. "It's very interesting. I think it holds some promise and our responsibility now is to work together and make sure that it in fact is something that we should be supporting," he said, while refraining from criticizing Saskatchewan's move. "I think it's good news that Saskatchewan has decided they want to take a lead on this."

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Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger sounded a similarly skeptical note.

Pioneered by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni, liberation therapy has come to be seen as a panacea by some in the MS community, even though health experts say its efficacy is thinly documented.

Dr. Zamboni conducted a study that involved 65 cases. Since then, more than 1,500 people, including a handful of Canadians, have paid to have the surgery in Bulgaria, India, Poland and a few other countries. Most report a remission in the disease's symptoms, with increased energy, circulation and mobility, but some have described little change in their condition.

Health officials across the country have been hesitant to back clinical trials for the procedure - essentially a simple venous angioplasty - until further research is complete.

But Mr. Wall admitted a personal connection to the disease is, in part, motivating him to forge ahead.

"I heard some stories in church," he said from a caucus gathering in Saskatoon. "One member shared some stories of a spouse struggling with it and it really stuck with me."

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And so, when he caught a story on the late-night news about the liberation method - which involves unclogging veins in the neck and spinal cord to free up circulation to the brain - he quickly began quizzing his Health Minister.

Saskatchewan has the greatest prevalence of MS in a country that has one of the highest rates of the disease in the world. More than 57,000 Canadians have MS.

"I understand there's not consensus, there's controversy, but there's also a lot of hope surrounding this procedure," Mr. Wall said. "We have a lot of people who deserve answers."

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