Thursday January 18th 2018

Science and politics clash in MS trials

Scientific research and politics are always a bad combination, but that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as complete condemnation of the Saskatchewan Party government’s latest move on the multiple sclerosis front.

There is obviously some merit to the provincial government’s decision to pick up the tab so that 80 to 90 Saskatchewan multiple sclerosis sufferers can take part in an Albany, N.Y., clinical trial of so-called liberation therapy. Beyond the hope of personal benefit for these individuals from our province, there is always the hope that this will contribute to the advancement of science.

But, somewhere along the line, one senses that the provincial government has lost sight of its role. If it’s really the betterment of Saskatchewan people suffering from a debilitating illness, should the focus have been participation in a clinical trial, the results of which – at best – might be just a relief of MS symptoms? Or should the government have been slightly more patient in seeking a research proposal that’s a better fit for its initial criteria? Wasn’t at least part of this exercise about a Saskatchewan-based trial running by the end of the year? And isn’t it a little bizarre – bordering on disrespectful – that we’d leap on board the first-available liberation therapy trial in the U.S, when no Saskatchewan-based scientist found ethical and scientific grounds for such research testing here? Or does this partly have something to do with the election call we can expect in two weeks?

In announcing the province had finalized a partnership agreement with vascular and interventional radiologist Dr. Gary Siskin of the Albany Medical Centre in Albany, N.Y., Health Minister Don McMorris justified the decision as one in which the province was taking the lead: “We’ve always been a leader on this front, saying that we want Saskatchewan people participating in clinical trials to help further the science and this is one way we can do it,” he told reporters.

The province’s $2-million contribution will cover patients’ expenses, including travel, but it will be a while before Saskatchewan MS patients can apply to participate. Not surprisingly, any hint of good news on this front was warmly received by a “very, very happy” MS Society of Canada.

Thus, the difficulty of criticizing anything to do with liberation therapy treatment that might be providing relief and might even lead to a cure for some people. If so, a $2-million pricetag would be a small one. But it’s the eagerness of the government – in the days before Premier Brad Wall calls the election – to cast aside its initial course for the sake of being able to say it’s done something that’s most disconcerting.

For instance, one of the more intriguing and maybe revealing elements came from something raised by NDP health critic Judy Junor. Notwithstanding her concerns about the political timing of the announcement (shouldn’t the government at least wait until the research contract was inked?) Junor was generally positive about the announcement and raised the seemingly legitimate issue of having a registry that tracks patients who receive the treatment in other countries. Mc-Morris responded that a registry wouldn’t be valid because information would be anecdotal.

Consider what the health minister is saying. After all, we’re shipping people to clinical trials in New York, solely based on anecdotal evidence that liberation therapy works. Scientists here are saying success stories are too anecdotal to justify Saskatchewan-based trials. Yet we can’t track those who’ve received the treatment because their stories are too anecdotal?

Admittedly, there is a solid argument that the wild variance in the way liberation therapy is being done in other countries might make scientific tracking useless anyway. But for McMorris to then say the government is participating in the New York trials because the people want this, and to then insist there’s “no political” element to the government’s decision doesn’t exactly provide consistency.

The difficulty here is that it’s not as if the Sask. Party government is acting in any untoward way. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that its heart has been in the right place.

But there’s a nagging concern that solid science might be playing second fiddle to pre-election political expedience.

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