03/24/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Interest fading in New Brunswick funding for controversial MS treatment

FREDERICTON - Two years after New Brunswick decided to help multiple sclerosis patients pay for an unproven treatment that's only offered outside the country, the number of patients who have sought the so-called liberation treatment has fallen short of expectations.

A leading authority on MS says he's not surprised the numbers are falling off.

The Finance Department says since April 1, 2011, 82 people who wanted the treatment that widens constricted veins in the neck have been approved for payments of $2,500 each. Applicants get the government funding if a community group raises matching funds.

The provincial government budgeted $400,000 for the program in its first two years of operation — or enough to help 160 people seek the treatment.

The government approved 25 applications in the first four months the money was available, but interest has tapered off and there have been no applications in the last two months.

"It's getting fewer and fewer because every month a negative study is coming out," said Dr. Jock Murray, a neurologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Italian vascular specialist Paolo Zamboni reported dramatic improvements in his patients after he pioneered the procedure, but Murray said none of the subsequent studies done around the world have had the same results.

"Every study has tended to be negative," he said.

The University of Buffalo recently reported that a study of 30 MS patients showed the treatment had no benefit on numerous measures of symptoms, disease progression and quality of life.

Through MRI scans, researchers also showed some patients had increased brain lesions, one of the hallmarks of the progressive neurological disease, after undergoing the vein-opening procedure.

Murray said every time there is hype in the media about possible cures, such as bee stings and snake venom, there is initial public interest, although none of them had any value at all.

Tim Donovan, 61, of Fredericton Junction, N.B., had the procedure done nearly three years ago and he says he is still experiencing the benefits.

"What has gotten better with me is stuff that is actually in my head — not my legs, not my hands — but brain fog, processing thought, and I can handle a conversation," he said.

The procedure, which is done in countries such as Puerto Rico and Mexico, typically costs more than $10,000.

Donovan didn't ask for government funding. He wants the procedure to be made available in New Brunswick.

"I don't want the money, I want the health care," he said.

Donovan said he believes the province should continue to make funding available.

New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government initially promised to commit $500,000 to the program, but with a growing deficit and debt the government has been examining programs to find places to cut costs.

No one from the Department of Health, including Health Minister Hugh Flemming, would comment on the status of the program in advance of Tuesday's provincial budget.

Liberal health critic Don Arseneault said the program needs to be re-evaluated.

"We would think the government would evaluate this program and see if it really meets the needs of the recipients or people who have MS," he said. "Why aren't they taking advantage of the program?"

New Brunswick is the only province that provides funds to help MS patients get the treatment.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba committed funding for clinical trials, while Newfoundland and Labrador commissioned a study of patients who sought the treatment that found no measurable benefits from it.