Every generation or so there comes a medical breakthrough of such huge significance that it captures public attention all over the world. In 1921 it was the discovery of insulin, in 1955 the Salk polio vaccine and just last fall, a surgical technique that cured multiple sclerosis.
This was sensational news because there had never been either a cure or preventative for MS, a crippling neurological disease that kills three million people a year world-wide. Canada has the highest incidence of MS in the world, affecting more than three women for every man.
The discovery could be called an act of love. Desperate to find a remedy for his wife’s MS, Italian surgeon Dr. Paolo Zamboni theorized that the disease was caused by deposits of iron in the brain resulting from constrictions in blood vessels. This was a radical departure from the long-held belief that MS is an autoimmune condition that leads to lesions (also known as sclerosis or scars) in the brain and major nerves, interrupting communication between brain and body.
By inflating a tiny balloon inside veins in the neck, Dr. Zamboni forced open the blockages and restored proper drainage to the brain. Once the iron deposits were flushed away, all MS symptoms vanished and the patients, among them Dr. Zamboni’s wife, returned to a normal life.
While the Italian doctor’s “liberating procedure,” as he calls it, was heralded as a miracle by MS patients, MS organizations were less than enthusiastic. The US National MS Association, for example, went beyond warning that the treatment was new and unproven and advised patients against even having scans done to determine whether in fact their blood vessels were blocked.
Some of this caution was justified. Dr. Zamboni’s technique had not worked in every case, and the trial involved only 65 patients, too small a sample to be reliable. In fact, he was the first to say that more extensive trials are needed.
But MS patients weren’t listening. Although it can be shown statistically that drug therapy yields some benefits, pharmaceuticals can neither prevent nor cure the disease and they cause many side-effects. Fed up with unsatisfactory treatment, MS sufferers have besieged Dr. Zamboni’s clinic with requests for the new therapy that go far beyond the numbers he is willing or able to take on.
You can hardly blame them, says Dr. Mark Haake, a researcher at McMaster University, who has developed a method of measuring iron buildup in the brain. “Patients need to speak up and say they want something like this investigated…to see if there’s credence to the theory.”
No doubt that will happen, but it could be years before the new therapy is widely available. Meantime, there is persuasive evidence that MS sufferers can retard progress of the disease by avoiding animal fats (meat and dairy) and eating plenty of omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, herring, cod liver oil).
Vitamin D may also be important, as MS is more prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly due to weak winter sunlight. And supplementing vitamin B12 may also be a key, as B12 deficits are known to mimic the nerve damage that has long been thought to cause MS.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2010.